Museum to honor Grantville Naval hero
by W. Winston Skinner
A museum in Grantville will honor the memory of Naval hero Thomas E. Zellars.
Mayor Jim Sells announced plans for the museum at Monday's Grantville City Council meeting at the city hall in the Glanton Municipal Complex. The museum will be opened in a downtown building associated with Zellars' family.
The building at 20 Main St. now belongs to Sells, who is donating the space for the museum.
Zellars gave his life to save his naval comrades in 1924. A ship was named in his honor. Members of the USS Zellars Association, comprised of veterans who served on that vessel, have been talking for several years with Cowetans about the possibility of a museum to display their collection of artifacts.
Applause followed Sells announcement that the USS Zellars Association plans 'to bring their artifacts to a museum that will be opening downtown.' The mayor said the museum 'will be the cornerstone of development downtown.'
The USS Zellars Association placed a historical marker at the sailor's grave in the Grantville City Cemetery some years ago. Reunions of the group have been held in Grantville in 1999 and 2010.
Thomas Zellars was born in Grantville in 1898 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1920. He reported for duty aboard the USS Mississippi and, as turret commander, rose to the rank of lieutenant.
In June 1924, an explosion and fire engulfed his turret. Zellars and 47 others were killed, but not before Zellars opened a flood valve on a burning powder train - an act that saved the ship and its crew.
'The accident occurred when the gun crew attempted to load one of the ship's big 14-inch guns,' the Newnan Herald reported in its June 20, 1924, edition. 'Just as the huge charge of powder (about 450 pounds) had been lifted to the breach of the gun... it was ignited, flooding the turret room with flame and gas and spreading death wherever they touched.'
When a hole was cut into the turret to remove the bodies, 'more than 20 corpses were found on top of the door,' the article reported. 'Officers of the fleet said Zellars' last act, turning on the water, saved the Mississippi from destruction.'
It is estimated Zellars saved the lives of a thousand men.
In 1944, Naval destroyer USS Zellars DD 777 was launched in Zellars' honor. His mother, Clara Fuller Zellars, was the ship's sponsor and broke the traditional bottle of champagne across the ship's bow when it was launched.
The ship went on to serve in both World War II and the Korean War, receiving five battle stars. The ship was decommissioned in 1971 and became part of the naval fleet of Iran. The vessel reportedly has not been operational since 1994.