By Ruth-Ellen Cohen Of the NEWS Staff
For years it elicited scant attention in Bangor’s Davenport Park. Now, the USS Maine monument has become the focus of a centennial commemoration, planned for early next year, which organizers hope will instill a sense of pride in the battleship that was the state’s namesake.
“We want to make the memorial what it was, a tribute to the guys who went down,” said Clifton Deringer, chairman of the Battleship USS Maine Centennial Committee, which has been planning the commemoration since last spring. “It’s a shame and a disgrace that it hasn’t been kept up. We’ve been entrusted with something rare, one of a kind, and we’ve kind of let it go by.”
“Very few people even know what the memorial is,” he said.
The bronze bowshield and scrollwork, recovered from the ship after 12 years under sea, were brought to Bangor through the efforts of local officials, mounted on the prow-shaped granite monument and dedicated in 1922. The public works department oversaw a $25,000 face lift in 1989; however, in recent years the memorial once again had become dingy and tarnished.
The commemoration, which is planned for Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14 and 15, will pay homage to the 268 men who lost their lives when the vessel blew up and sunk in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War.
Members of the centennial committee will conduct a fund-raiser through 1998 to restore the monument and bring the bronze figurehead back to its original colors.
They also hope to establish a trust fund to ensure that the memorial will be maintained, and to make improvements to Davenport Park.
Individuals and businesses are being solicited for donations, while cups, T-shirts, caps and pins emblazoned with illustrations pertaining to the USS Maine are for sale. The items will be on display when the new centennial committee headquarters open Tuesday at 240 Main St., across from Davenport Park, in space provided free of charge by Jack Quirk, a member of the centennial committee.
Meanwhile, thanks to a $10,000 allocation for materials from the city of Bangor and supplies donated by area businesses, artist-sculptor David Holmes of Plymouth and his wife, Jane, have painted the shield its original red, white and blue, and given the leaves and ribbons on the scrollwork temporary coats of paint.
David Holmes, who plans on replacing missing pieces of scrollwork next spring, hopes the committee eventually will raise enough funds so that the ornament can be covered with the original gold leaf.
The city’s contribution is also paying for a face lift for the eagle and cast-iron post which sat atop the monument. The eagle is being recast in bronze at the Paul King foundry in Johnston, R.I., while the post is being sandblasted and painted at H.E. Sargent Co. in Old Town.
So far, the centennial committee has raised $5,000, according to Deringer. He recently was notified that his group would receive a $750 Maine Humanities Council grant, which will be used to produce a program book for the weekend event.
The commemoration will include breakfast and dinner buffets on Sunday at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer, for which tickets must be purchased. All other events are free to the public.
A public informational forum will be held Saturday at Jeff’s, and will include displays and exhibits, a preview of a Maine Public Broadcasting film on the USS Maine, and a visit from Thomas Allen, author of a National Geographic story about the battleship.
Also at the forum will be Sgt. Kevin Tillman, who endeared himself to Mainers in 1991 when he gave a spontaneous rendition of the national anthem on his saxophone at the Bangor International Airport as the troops were returning from the Gulf War.
After the educational event will be a reception at Jeff’s, hosted by Gov. Angus King.
On Sunday, the traditional commemorative ceremony will be held at noon at Davenport Park with Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, U.S. Reps. Tom Allen and John Baldacci, Gov. King, Bangor Mayor Tim Woodcock, Brewer Mayor Janet Cobb and Adm. Malcolm Fages, representing the chief of U.S. naval operations. A free chowder luncheon will follow at the Brewer VFW Post.
Later, at Jeff’s, the Brewer Hometown Band and Bangor Band will provide authentic music of the 1898 period.
One song,”My Sweetheart Went Down with the Maine,” was written about a woman who was engaged to a sailor who perished aboard the storied vessel.
Also, a cancellation of a special commemorative stamp depicting the vessel will be held during the weekend. The bulk of the activities are geared toward children, according to Deringer, who plans to ask the Commissioner of Education’s Office to help him alert schools about the commemoration.
“If we can get to the children, then we can pass this on,” said Deringer.
“The point is to get to young people, to show them that this is about human beings loving and giving and forsaking everything.”
Deringer said the commemoration could be the springboard for establishing an enduring relationship between the people of Maine and the members of the crew of the third and present USS Maine, a nuclear submarine docked at Kings Bay, Ga.
The men, who plan to attend February’s event, “feel a kinship with the people of Maine,” said Deringer, who met with the submarine commander and King last summer to discuss plans for the crew to make regular visits to the state.
“They want to get back to the bosom of Maine,” he said, “to relate themselves closely to the state whose name their ship bears.”
Crew members will be available to speak to area schools during their visit, according to Deringer.
The second battleship USS Maine was launched in 1901 and decommissioned in 1920, he said.
Deringer called the Spanish-American War, “the first of the forgotten wars.”
One reason is that veterans from that war are no longer alive, he said. And anyway, “people aren’t always that inclined to see the importance of history.”
“And that’s too bad, because that’s how we learn,” said Deringer, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. “People should be aware of what others have done for us, that 268 people sacrified their lives so you and I could get up and have breakfast in the morning.”
An estimated 392,000 Americans – all volunteers – fought in the Spanish-American War, which ended with Spain relinquishing Cuba, Puerto Rico and what became Guam.
Bangor is one of four final resting places for the remains of the ship, said Deringer. The main mast is at Arlington National Cemetery, and the foremast is at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, while the vessel itself was taken out to sea in 1912 and sunk off the coast of Cuba.
“The Maine is the longest ship in the world,” said Deringer, echoing a popular expression.
Members of the committee are hopeful that the commemoration will help to retrieve from the annals of history the story of the USS Maine and the Spanish-American War.
“I hope it becomes the catalyst to start people realizing that this is a part of history we ought to take a look at,” said Jim Emple, a committee member.
For Deringer, the centennial anniversary year of the USS Maine ultimately could see things made right.
Maybe the monument finally will be “recognized for what it is,” he said, “a national treasure.”
Hosts are needed to house the crew members of the USS Maine during the commemoration. To volunteer, or to obtain tickets for the event, call 827-7658 or 262-2377.