Real-deal U.S. military culture pervades Alameda’s USS Hornet
By Lou Fancher
Authenticity, so rare in contemporary times, is everywhere at the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum.
“We have docents who have participated in the military. Ninety percent of them have served,” says Alissa Doyle, the Hornet’s community events and outreach director. “When people come on board, they’re interacting with live history. I think that’s invaluable.”
Firsthand, real-life experience especially extends to people like Chaplain Wallace Whatley. Long before he started holding nondenominational services each Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Hornet’s second-deck chapel and library, the 88-year-old seaman spent four years as an enlisted man. Called to the ministry, he attended the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Three years as a pastor set him up for decades of active duty as a navy chaplain.
“I was called as an active naval chaplain in 1960,” he says in an interview. “I’ve been at three naval stations and on an aircraft carrier.” Whatley’s career has taken him among multiple locations in the United States to Spain, Guam and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. “We were there constructing buildings and bridges. I was there when (President John F.) Kennedy was shot.”
At one time serving on the USS Oriskany when it was in Alameda, Whatley says that ship’s amazing history — Korean and Vietnam battle stars, a devastating fire, retrofitting and modifications, final decommissioning and then being sunk as an artificial reef and one of the nation’s largest wreck diving sites — is legendary.
This makes providing weekly worship a privilege to Whatley as much as a passion. Services are available to all museum ticket holders and open without admission fees anyone wishing to attend the chapel service.
“Anyone on the ship at that time is invited to come and worship with us. We have prayer and Bible study. We go with what people know or may not know,” he says. Asked about people of Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or other faiths, Whatley says most of the people who come to a chapel know they’re coming to a religious service that is Christian. “We’re Protestant. When I say ‘nondenominational,’ I mean it’s not Catholic, not a Mass.”
Doyle, in answer to the same question, says, “We are always looking to reflect the greater Bay Area in all our ship’s offerings. We would be happy to consider a wider range of religious services should those communities seek us out.”
That attitude is in keeping with the museum’s overall mission and programming. In addition to year-round tours and special events commemorating patriotic holidays, an ongoing drive to serve the broader community introduces new initiatives. One example, “In Memory and Movement,” will be presented June 2 in cooperation with the Alameda-based, national service organization Veterans Yoga Project (VYP).
“They reached out to us because they’d done a project on the USS Intrepid in New York,” says Doyle. “I’ve tried to reach a new demographic, and this is a wonderful form with athleticism and our veterans coming together.”
Doyle says many may often think of the average U.S. military veteran as someone of an older generation, likely male. “But there’s a huge population from wars in Afghanistan and the Gulf War. Without going into demographics, there are more female veterans, more people in their 30s. We need to serve the entirety of the veteran population.”
The event from 1 to 4 p.m. (admission is $25 or free to active-duty military personnel and veterans) will offer veteran-led, gentle-flow yoga sessions, information about the VYP and light snacks and refreshments.
“This will bring younger people, athletes and other community members to see the wonderful activities we have on the ship,” says Doyle.
Of course, Memorial Day weekend also brings on the annual tribute ceremony (at 11 a.m. May 27), with the Hornet Band, words of remembrance from Whatley and a fantail ceremonial wreath toss. If that’s not enough, over this preceding holiday week and weekend, history and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) overnight programs are catering to youth age 7 to 18.
The programs attract up to 500 attendees at a time and are available to adults, families and corporate groups. Hands-on activities provide a stimulating way to learn ship history. Doyle says creating simple electrical circuits and a demo that shrinks and blows up a marshmallow are most popular.
“They learn about desalination — the math and science behind the operations used when the ship was active.”
People looking further in the summer for events will not want to miss the eight-day culmination of the Hornet’s 10-month celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program. From July 16-24, a discounted admission day, model rocket building, meet-and-greets and other events will explain the ship’s pivotal role in space exploration and travel.
“A lot of people don’t know we were the recovery ship for the Apollo 11 astronauts,” says Doyle. “On July 20, we’ll have our huge splashdown celebration. On July 21, we’ll have about 100 former crew members come back and tell their oral histories.”
Once again, authenticity and living history will prevail on the USS Hornet.