Back in early December, just when the holidays were beginning to consume most of our thoughts, a very important moment occurred for the City of Pascagoula. At that time, our fair hometown was officially designated as an American World War II Heritage City by the National Park Service.
Understand, this honor is a very big deal. The American World War II Heritage Cities Program honors the contributions of local towns, cities, counties, and their citizens who stepped into the workforce to support America’s war effort during World War II. Pascagoula is one of just 19 communities in the entire country who have received the designation.
Those of us who grew up in Pascagoula and/or live here now have always been aware of the contributions our city made to our country’s WW II effort, and how involved we remain in the national defense system. Perhaps we’ve always also taken these things for granted. Now, with the recognition brought from being a World War II Heritage City, we need to realize how special we are in this regard.
Nothing as prestigious as this award comes without a couple of central elements: the facts to back up one’s worthiness (which we have in spades), and a concerted effort to present the case , for the recognition to happen. The latter came in the form of a local group of citizens brought together by my friend, author and proud Pascagoulan Martin Hegwood, who did the lion’s share of the work to get this done.
In putting together this column, I asked Martin to refresh my memory on how this project began, progressed, and eventually succeeded. His answer was, predictably, well informed and well written. I would like to therefore share with you excerpts of what Martin related to me, kind of a column within a column if you will.
“I was in a doctor’s waiting room on September 2, 2020, and happened to look up at a TV screen and saw then-President Trump standing at a podium, outdoors, with lots of flags in the background. The ‘crawl’ at the bottom of the screen said that ‘the President is in Wilmington, North Carolina, for ceremonies dedicating Wilmington as the nation’s first WWII Heritage City’ or words to that effect. I had never heard of any WWII Heritage City, but it struck me that if any city in America has a heritage from that war and its aftermath, it’s Pascagoula. So I looked it up and found that it was a brand new program administered by the National Park Service under the provisions of a law called the Dingell Act.
“The Act lists a lot of categories that would be considered in the naming of these cities (war bond activities, war materiel manufacturing, foodstuffs for the war effort, civil defense programs, lots of other stuff), and Pascagoula checked every box. A requirement is that nominations for WWII designation must come from the highest elected official of the city. So I spoke to Mayor Jay Willis, and he immediately said he would nominate after our group pulled the application together. He also suggested that I present the program to the City Council, which I did, and they also were very receptive. Then our committee started meeting and getting mobilized in earnest. Richard, you were all in from the start, and guided me on drumming up public support. We went to the Historical Preservation Commission, the Maritime Center, the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, and I don’t remember where else. Everybody showed strong support and offered to help however they could.
“Since the program is limited to no more than one city per state, I thought it would be wise to be ready to move fast once the process was put in place to get the jump on any competition. I began searching newspaper files for editions between 1938 and 1945, and found a world of information. I researched for over a year through these and other files plus word of mouth interviews, using the Dingell Act as my point of reference. Finally, the official guidelines came down from the National Park Service, but they set a very narrow window to submit applications, six months I believe. It was an attainable goal, because I had already done the legwork, and Katarina Scott, the city’s Director of Communications, worked very hard and very quickly in packaging my research and sending it to the NPS with the mayor’s approval. The whole process took a little over a year once we really got started, and it was pretty intense work, lots of time in archives.
“I am delighted that Pascagoula has been named a WWII Heritage City. It’s a distinction that can be a permanent part of the city’s brand. There are a number of ways that we can capitalize on this, and the first obvious step is through signage. We need to let the world know about this from now on. I hope that a number of historic plaques at various points around the city can come from this. Ingalls Avenue is getting a major facelift right now, and with some creativity it can be used as a WWII highlight roadway. Certainly, local veterans groups would want to be involved. Thank goodness our Maritime Center is coming along nicely, and it can serve as a natural home for future displays and seminars. We can reach out to the WWII Museum in New Orleans about traveling exhibits and visiting speakers. Most importantly, we need to establish some type of ongoing program of WWII education in our schools with emphasis on this region. The ideas of how to promote our WWII Heritage Designation are pretty limitless.”
Hey, you think my guy Martin got into this thing? Like many Pascagoulans, he has a fervent love for his home town and its rich and colorful history. Combine that with the fact that Martin is a skilled researcher, talented writer, and willing project organizer, and you can see a big reason why our WWII mission was a success.
I’ll just add a couple of notes to Martin’s outstanding description of the situation. Two of the other 18 cities (think about that—only 19 in all of the USA) to receive WWII Heritage Designations are New Orleans and Pensacola. We foresee a WWII history corridor forming along the Gulf Coast, which will be unique and a strong tourist attraction. Also, to Martin’s point about reaching out to local schools, he and I will be meeting with representatives of the Pascagoula-Gautier School District next week to discuss the situation. More on that later.
I hope that many of you are as excited about Pascagoula becoming a World War II Heritage City as Martin and I are. My father started working at Ingalls in 1940 as a welding inspector, and eventually became Director of the Estimating Department, retiring in 1976. He was, obviously, right there during the entirety of WWII, as many of your relatives or friends assuredly were.
Growing up, principally because of my dad’s job, I always had a strong sense of what Ingalls meant to our community and our country. Our famous shipyard is the center of our connection to WWII and defense efforts ever since, and there are many other reasons that our city has a bond with that historic conflict and our nation’s history beyond. So, say it with me: “Pascagoula, Mississippi, is a nationally designated World War II Heritage City—we deserve it, we’re proud of it, and we shall continue to prove why our home town has been and always will be important to the United States of America.”