by KEVIN KNODELL
The USS Colorado might have fired more tonnage at Japanese forces than any other ship in the American Pacific fleet during World War II. She took part in 10 amphibious landings and sustained impacts from kamikaze attacks.
Ninety-four men died and 338 were wounded serving aboard the ship. After the war, the Navy decommissioned and scrapped the legendary vessel in a dock in Puget Sound—but Boeing bought up the teak wood deck and preserved it.
Recently, Boeing donated Colorado’s deck to be the floor of the non-profit United Service Organizations’ new SeaTac Station at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport—an upgraded lounge for veterans and active duty military personnel passing through.
The wood floor looks unremarkable, but many panels are still scarred with burn marks from Japanese attacks. It’s a chilling reminder of the ship’s bloody past.
It’s no coincidence that the history of the Pacific War is so heavily built into the space. Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines passing through it will be—more often than not—on their way to and from duty stations in East Asia as part of the Pentagon’s “Pacific pivot.”
Washington state is primarily known for latte-sipping hipsters and legal weed, but it’s a major military hub. The Puget Sound area is home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord—a large combined Army and Air Force installation—and a massive web of naval facilities supporting submarines, ships and aircraft.
The majority of these forces train to deploy in East Asia and the Pacific. In particular, the JBLM-based 2nd Infantry Division’s primary mission is the defense of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The division keeps 10,000 of its total 17,000 troops stationed in South Korea at all times.
Soldiers and their families frequently shuffle between duty stations—and travel on leave to visit family and friends—through civilian airports. The frequent moves can be stressful, particularly on younger troops, new spouses and their children.
The USO’s airport lounges help relieve some of that burden.
USO president J.D. Crouch—formerly Deputy National Security Advisor under George W. Bush—flew out from D.C. for the Feb. 4 unveiling of the new SeaTac Station.
He’s direct about how the USO’s increased attention to the West Coast coincides with U.S. military interests in the Far East.
With increased tensions between China and many of its neighbors and a wildly unpredictable nuclear-armed North Korea, it’s no surprise many American leaders—including Pres. Barrack Obama—want more boots in Asia.
“I think the president is right about that,” Crouch said.
That’s putting a strain on SeaTac’s current lounge, which has frequently filled past capacity. In recent years, the volunteers that operate the lounge have turned troops and families away due to crowding.
Navy brass flew Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant down to San Diego to talk about expanding Seattle’s capacity to support in-transit troops and dependents. Bryant described the surreal experience of commanders flying him out by helicopter to ships off the coast for their meeting.
Over two years, USO Northwest collected around $1.5 million for a new upgraded space, including a huge contribution from the Boeing Employee Community Fund.
The USO went from a space that was roughly 3,400 square feet to a space that’s around 7,000 square feet. The change has allowed them to triple their legal occupancy.
The new bathrooms have showers, most of which are handicap accessible for wounded veterans. There’s also a bunk area for short naps.
The unveiling brought out a parade of dignitaries ranging from military brass, state officials, mayors and Boeing employees. All the while, volunteers hurried around giving tours, serving cake and answering questions.
When most people think of the USO, they think of Bob Hope and the elaborate, star-studded shows and concerts they put on for troops overseas.
But the USO’s volunteers spend much more of their time working at airport lounges like the one at SeaTac, making ham sandwiches for exhausted military families and helping young troops who’ve never traveled from their home town find their flights.
“Places like this are the most important part of what we do,” Crouch explained.
Crouch said the USO only has about 400 employees, with most of the grunt work falling to its nearly 30,000 volunteers.
Doug Hoope, a 20-year Navy veteran, is one of the volunteers at SeaTac. He began volunteering with the USO in 2003 around the beginning of the Iraq War.
Hoople said he felt he wasn’t doing enough for the next generation of veterans.
A lot has changed since he left the service in 1980, he said, but some things never do. New service members often arrive to their duty stations in Washington without anyone telling them where to go or how to get there. Sometimes, they tell volunteers their superiors instructed them to report to the USO.
Hoople explained that one of the most important thing for him is helping out spouses and children, particularly those who travel to-and-from overseas duty stations in places like Japan.
Having a place like SeaTac Center makes the stress just a little bit more manageable.