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Why a battleship is being built in Brighton, Colorado

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Command Master Chief Benjamin Chester of the Navy is carrying a box of mementos to be placed on the battleship.
Belen Ward / Colorado Community Media

BRIGHTON, Colo. — A lifesized replica of World War II-era battleship USS Colorado that's taking shape on the banks of Brighton's Mann-Nyholt Lake will never see naval service, but it's already received honors from the U.S. Navy.

Several U.S. Navy officers joined veterans and Adams County officials for the official "mast stepping" ceremony for the replica battleship, destined to debut by Memorial Day 2023 as the county's new Veterans Memorial.

"The Navy is excited about it because they want to use it as a recruitment tool, bring potential recruits, maybe bring out veterans to do physical therapy, weddings, military weddings, or commissioning of officers or chiefs, or retirements. We are going to have the USS Colorado's bell the same one on the submarine, " said Adam County Commissioner Charles "Chaz" Tedesco, a retired Navy Veteran.

Crews are continuing to build the Veterans Memorial at the Riverdale Regional Park, on the shore of Mann-Nyholt Lake. It's meant to honor past, present, and future veterans for their sacrifices to defend our country, Tedesco said.

Meaning behind mast stepping

The mast stepping ceremony was celebrated on Dec. 7, which is the Remembrance Day of Pearl Harbor. Veterans and community members placed mementos in a box that were placed inside the battleship's mast.

U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Benjamin Chester, a 22-year veteran who has deployed on three different ships, gave of speech on what the stepping of the mast means and the ceremony's history.

"The stepping of the mast is a meaningful event of the building a ship," Chester said. "The mast is carefully lowered through the whole main deck surrounded by reinforcing shocks reinforcing shocks security structural beams, the mast was in jostled into position through a slot into the keelson."

Chester said the tradition started with the ancient Greeks and Romans placing coins under the step of the mast to pay a toll for the crew to cross the dangers of the sea – and into the afterlife in case the ship sank. The Roman tradition paid Charon the ferryman to cross a river, Styx, into the afterlife.

"Placing the coins in ship functions as a form of advice, thanking the gods for successful construction, and requests for divine protection," Chester said.

Chester said it was also the practice when a ship was demasted, losing its mast to a storm or some other trauma; coins are placed in the new mast for good luck.

Chester said the Vikings placed coins in a container over the mast. Navies have continued the tradition, and coins were placed in the USS Constitution, Old Iron Sides, and on the original six heavy frigates of the U.S. Navy, still in service today.

"It's a rich tradition carried forward to the present. Though today the mass stepping ceremony involves placing or welding coins and other significant objects into the hollow part of the mast of the ship during its construction to bring good luck," Chester said. It's essentially a time capsule onboard the ship."

Chester said there is no official instruction or regulation which covers mass stepping. The ceremony is a time-honored tradition and an important part of bringing a ship to life.

"Today the ceremonies vary greatly from region to region and even throughout the individual shipyards. It focuses on history, heritage and ships' namesake enduring tie between the shipbuilder's crew, the plank owners and the sponsors of the ship, linking the past with future," Chester said.

Chester placed a Navy Talent Acquisition Group Rocky Mountain Command Chief challenge coin on the USS Colorado mast.

"I hope that it may bring luck and strength, I'm happy to be part of this today with Veterans Advisory Committee," Chester said.

Adam County Commissioner Charles Chaz Tedesco also served in the Navy for six years as a Boiler Technician taking care of the power units for the ship, the boiler, which ran on steam back in the day. He also served part of his Navy career on the USS Midway before its decommission.

Tedesco said his father, who adopted him, also served in the Navy in Sasebo, Japan, right after the bombing of Japan. In honor of his father, he placed his Good Conduct Medal from World War II on the mast.

"I served almost 45 years later, in Sasebo, Japan, that was my base," Tedesco said.

USS Colorado

Stephen Leek, another former sailor, served in the Navy from 1993 and 1997 as an aviation machinist working on airplanes on the carriers. He came in from Seattle to help with this memorial; his grandfather Elmer Hitchcock served on the original USS Colorado battleship in World War II as a first-class seaman.

"After he passed away, I started volunteering with his alumni group that served with my grandfather on the USS Colorado," Leek said. "They would have annual reunions after the war; they were all busy with their lives working and raising families. But as they got older, the reunions didn't happen as often. It was a regular part of my life with them, who fought in World War II with my grandfather."

Leek said when they couldn't take care of themselves, he answered the phones and sent out the newsletter.

About 12 to 13 years ago, there were up to 200 of them. Now we are down to four.

"The good news is that with the help of Adams County, all four plan on coming here to open the official ribbon cutting in May for Memorial Day," Leek said.

The Lucky Ship

Leek said the original USS Colorado History battleship was commissioned after World War I and was considered a dinosaur by World War II– one of the older ships in the Navy at the time.

"The Navy realized in World War II during Pearl Harbor that battleships were very vulnerable and became obsolete, and as December 8, 1941, the aircraft carrier had become the ship of battleships," Leek said.

When the attack on the Pacific Fleet began on Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Colorado was the only battleship that was not at Pearl Harbor.

"She had electrical problems and was at the Puget Sound Navy Yard on that morning that every other Pacific Fleet battleship was at Pearl Harbor and every one of them was damaged to some extent or another that morning. She was considered a lucky ship," Leek said.

The attack created a new role for battleships.

"The World War I era dreadnought kind of a ship couldn't keep up with faster battleships and aircraft carriers they were making," Leek said.

Leek said the USS Colorado still had a purpose as support for ground invasions such as Tarawa, Okinawa, etc.

"Those older slower battleships they would go in with the invasion forces soften up the beaches, so it kind of became her purpose after that," Leek said.

Found foghorn

The USS Colorado was decommissioned in 1947 and scrapped in 1959 and 1960.

Leek said all the parts from the battleship were sold and scrapped in Seattle as well.

"A lot of the pieces of the battleship have been found. Since I'm part of that alumni group, I get called about found pieces. A company near the Seattle airport had the USS Colorado's foghorn since 1960, using it inside its factory as emergency evacuation and about seven years, it upgraded to a modern system," Leek said.

One of those pieces was the ship's original foghorn. Lee said it's been placed on campus at the University of Colorado museum. He contacted them and they plan on bringing the foghorn to the ceremony in May to blow her horn when the memorial is complete.

"I've been getting more original parts and pieces and have some of the teak wood deckings from the ship that I'm bringing to be built into this battleship," said Leek.

Colorado Community Media is a network of more than two dozen print and online publications serving eight counties in the Denver area.

This story was first published in Colorado Community Media.

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