This Father’s Day, Sandie Campbell MacKnight will wake up feeling a little bit closer to her late dad, Mainard Glenn Campbell.
A veteran of World War II, Campbell never spoke much of his military service. MacKnight said she knew her father enlisted in the Navy in 1945, near the end of the war, but not much else.
“I don’t know what sparked his interest in joining, maybe he was just ready for a big new adventure being a young kid from northeastern Tennessee and never having left home before,” she said. “He enlisted when he was 17.”
MacKnight said her father once told her husband, Paul, how he rode a train to Orange, Texas, where he was marched from the now-dilapidated but still-standing train station, east on Green Avenue and to “his ship.”
“Sometimes he would talk about the Kamikaze pilots and what they did; every now and then he would talk about shore leave and parts of the world he got to visit or USO dancers who came to see the soldiers,” she said. “But that was about it.”
Campbell died Easter morning, April 16, 1995, in north Alabama, where he had lived for more than 40 years. The history he had lived died with him, or so MacKnight thought.
In 2000, MacKnight’s husband was named company liaison for Trinity Industries in Orange in their partnership with the Southeast Texas War Memorial and Heritage Foundation. Their goal was to find a berth for the USS Orleck. A decorated destroyer commissioned in 1945 during World War II and built in Orange, the Orleck sailed for more than 50 years and was decommissioned and transferred to the Turkish Navy, a NATO ally, in 1982 where it was used until 1998. Now it needed a new home.
“Paul took an interest in the ship, recognized its importance, and would on occasion share tidbits about it,” MacKnight said. “While Paul commuted to Orange daily from Sulphur, I rarely went there. I remember passing once and from a distance seeing the decommissioned destroyer parked at Levingston Island.”
After Hurricane Rita, the ship was moved to Lake Charles and MacKnight thought that was the end of their connection to the ship.
She was wrong.
While on a trip last November to her mother’s home in Alabama, MacKnight’s husband came across a box of her father’s things.
“Dad had kept an old box full of black and white photographs and some memorabilia from Hong Kong and the south Pacific,” she said. “Paul uncovered a picture of my dad in his naval uniform and another photo of two other sailors. On the back of the two unidentified sailors was the handwritten notation ‘Friends from the USS Orleck.’ What a jolt.”
MacKnight said while that wasn’t necessarily a confirmation her father had served on the ship, it was exciting to see the Orleck’s name due to how familiar the pair are with the destroyer.
“Fast forward to D-Day, June 6, 2019,” MacKnight said. “Paul and I watched the TV coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-Day broadcast live from Normandy. We were children of World War II veterans. While my dad had served in the U.S. Navy, Paul’s father had served as a U.S. Army doctor in McArthur’s Army of Occupation of Japan. We had grown up with, as Tom Brokaw termed it, ‘the Greatest Generation.’ ”
MacKnight said later that afternoon, they received an email from Ancestry.com indicating her family had a possible link to the Orleck.
“It exposed a muster roll of the crew dated January 1946,” she said. “There it was, confirmation that Mainard Glenn Campbell indeed served on the USS Orleck. The news was thrilling.”
On June 10, MacKnight stepped foot on the Orleck for the first time, retracing the steps her father and taken 73 year earlier.
“We walked around the sun-baked deck and eventually found our way to the office where we were greeted by the receptionist and then by Major Ron Williams, the dedicated executive director of the USS Orleck,” she said. “Major Williams could not have been more welcoming. He invited us to the air-conditioned board room where he videotaped our ‘story’ about how we came to discover dad’s connection to the Orleck.”
She said Williams showed her a copy of the Orleck’s roster from Sept. 15, 1945, which showed her father was a plank owner — meaning he had been part of the original crew when the ship was commissioned.
“What a treasure to find that,” she said. “I think he spent a lot of time on kitchen patrol because he was a low man on the totem pole. He was probably one of the youngest guys on the ship.”
MacKnight said finding out her dad’s connection to the ship “has just increased the meaning of the ship for our family.”
“It’s just a great memorial,” she said. “I really want to invite my brothers down and their families and have a reunion at the ship because I feel like his spirit is there. We will pay homage to my father’s memory and to that of his fellow sailors and those of other sailors from later times whose spirits still haunt from the past.”