Historic WWII Submarine Museum Refloated Decades Later by Midwest Flooding

The USS Batfish sails again in Oklahoma.

byKyle Cheromcha|
History photo


Waters continue to rise across the midwest this week as heavy rains and saturated soil bring multiple rivers to flood stage. Homes have been destroyed, entire communities are inundated—and in Oklahoma, the historic World War II submarine

USS Batfish has re-floated once again nearly fifty years after it was dry docked on display in a park along the Arkansas River.

Aerial video from KOTV News on 6 shows the USS Batfish floating comfortably in at least 15 feet of water on Wednesday as the Arkansas spills over its banks and swamps the city of Muskogee. Normally, the 77-year-old Balao-class submarine serves as the centerpiece for Muskogee's War Memorial Park, standing bare on a bowl-shaped lawn as both an interactive museum and a point of pride for the region. But these floodwaters have it sailing again like it's 1943.

The boat began to lift up as water filled the surrounding basin, prompting an evacuation of the museum while caretakers removed WWII-era artifacts for safekeeping. That decision seemed even wiser as the USS Batfish began to list as it floated ever-higher; local firefighters later filled its ballast tanks to level it out. It remains to be seen whether the old sub will stay watertight.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the USS Batfish seems eager to get back in the game. Built as part of America's World War II arsenal, the sub launched from Kittery, Maine on May 5, 1943 and steamed off to join the Pacific Fleet and run patrols in the Philippine and South China Seas. She and her crew sunk nine Japanese ships and three submarines over their 21-month tour (the latter trio going down in one wild 76-hour stretch in 1945) and received a Presidential Unit Citation and six battle stars for their efforts.

The USS Batfish at sea, undated., Getty Images

Capable of diving more than 400 feet below the surface and staying submerged for 48 hours, the 311-foot diesel-electric submarine would have been armed with 24 torpedoes and several large-caliber deck guns as it set out on months-long patrols. Those numbers wouldn't win a war today, obviously—but consider that fellow Balao-class sub USS Archerfish sunk a Japanese aircraft carrier in 1944, which holds as the largest warship ever taken down by a submarine.

Batfish was decommissioned in 1946 following the end of World War II for use as a training boat, only to be brought back into service at the height of the Korean War in 1952 and stationed in Caribbean as part of the Atlantic Fleet. But the USS Batfish would never see combat again, spending the rest of its days as a trainer and a research vessel before getting mothballed in 1969.

Twitter | @retnap007

How it came to rest on the shores of the Arkansas River in Oklahoma is surprisingly straightforward. The same year the boat was finally taken out of service, a group of submarine vets in the state approached the U.S. Navy to acquire a decommissioned sub for a permanent memorial in a waterfront park in Muskogee. Eventually, and not without great difficulty, the Batfish was moved from its berth in New Orleans to the park in Oklahoma via the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers. Workers dug out the bowl shaped lawn and an access trench to form a natural dry dock, flooded it, and floated the Batfish into position in 1973.

Facebook | Catherine Foreman Gray

Almost five decades later, the USS Batfish sails again. This actually isn't the first time it's felt the sweet embrace of water since then; the sub briefly re-floated in 1986 during another rainy spell. Mooring lines are visible in the video, which suggests the museum knows its charge is capable of wandering. It's also reportedly been well-maintained over the years, and major leaks clearly aren't a problem—yet.

The USS Batfish floats in 1986., Facebook | Muskogee War Memorial Park

The Arkansas River is projected to crest at 38 feet on Thursday. The last ride (for now) of the USS Batfish rolls on.

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