The Big Apple’s Sooner Celebrations
Oklahomans remembered in Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes
Photos by M.J. Alexander
I was bustling up Broadway in the rain, in the thick of a Manhattan lunchtime crowd, when the letters flashed by underfoot in a blur of silver: THUNDERBIRD.
What? I tried to look back without breaking stride, and also glimpsed the number 45. Really? Ducking into the nearest alcove, I doubled back to join the crowd heading downstream.
Sure enough, embedded in the rain-slicked sidewalk in the heart of New York City’s financial district is the name of Oklahoma’s most famous military regiment: the 45th Thunderbird Infantry Division. Its block silver letters read: “April 22, 1954 – Veterans of the 45th ‘Thunderbird’ Infantry Division On Their Return From The Korean War.”
The black granite strip is one of 206 markers immortalizing every ticker-tape parade ever held in New York City.
Dubbed The Canyon of Heroes, the parade route is New York’s equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, memorializing each time the city turned out to extend the ultimate salute for a job well done, for icons from Amelia Earhart to Jesse Owens to Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela.
On April 22, 1954, New York’s guests of honor were the first division to return home as a unit from the Korean War: the 45th Infantry. Newspaper reports of the time noted “The Oklahoma outfit spent four years in Korea, 429 days of that time on the front lines,” fighting at Old Baldy, Heartbreak Ridge and the Punchbowl.
“A crowd estimated at 250,000 cheered and set up a snowstorm of ticker tape and confetti as the ‘canyon of heroes’ echoes to the measured tread of marching boots and the blare of martial music,” United Press reported. Speaking to the 1,130 infantrymen, New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner declared, “I believe that more than the fear of atomic warfare – more than the fear of hydrogen devastation – Russia fears the indomitable will and unified courage of the American solider.”
The tradition of the ticker-tape parade dates back to Oct. 28, 1886, when a spontaneous celebration spilled onto Broadway following the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Long strips of ticker tape – thin, inch-wide paper containing stock quotes – were tossed from windows with impromptu glee, and spectators cheered the serpentine snakes that formed as the coils twisted and fell on the festivities.
The second ticker-tape parade was held April 29, 1889, marking the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration on the balcony of nearby Federal Hall. Ten years later, on Sept. 30, 1899, Admiral George Dewey became the first living person honored by a ticker-tape parade, as the city welcomed him home as a hero of the Battle of Manila Bay after the Spanish-American War.
Two Oklahoma brothers played an unexpected role in the first ticker-tape parade of the 20th century, which was set for June 18, 1910, in honor of Teddy Roosevelt.
For weeks beforehand, newspapers anticipated the elaborate welcome marking the homecoming of Roosevelt, former president of the United States, after a yearlong trip that included accepting a Nobel Peace Prize and hunting on African safari.
Among those reading the news were 10-year-old Bud Abernathy and his brother Temple, age 6. The duo had made headlines earlier in the year when they rode alone from their family ranch outside Frederick to Santa Fe. The boys had met Roosevelt when he came to watch their father, Jack “Catch-Em-Alive” Abernathy, snare wolves with his bare hands, a feat that moved the president to declare: “This beats anything I have seen in my life, and I have seen a good deal!”
Determined to be on hand in New York to welcome their old friend, the Abernathy boys became a national sensation when they rode more than 2,000 miles from Oklahoma to New York City. An account of time noted: “Kids envied them. Women adored them. Grown men pulled hair from their horses’ tails to keep as souvenirs.”
They made it in time for the ticker-tape parade, riding astride their horses – Sam Bass and Wylie Haynes – in a place of honor just behind Roosevelt’s carriage and in front of the reunited Rough Riders, who marched on foot through the Canyon of Heroes and up Broadway.
More than 100 years later, the scene has been commemorated by artist Mike Wimmer in an epic painting, commissioned by the State Senate and dedicated at the Oklahoma State Capitol on May 14, 2014. Now removed for Capitol renovations, the artwork will be reinstalled outside the State Senate chambers, memorializing the Abernathys’ ticker-tape moment.
Although not listed in granite as an official honoree, Oklahoma baseball legend Mickey Mantle rode in the first two ticker-tape parades that featured the New York Yankees – held on April 10, 1961, the year the team won the American League pennant, and the following April, after New York won the World Series. The Spavinaw-born, Commerce-raised Mantle, who played his entire major league career with the Yankees, was front and center for both.
On May 22, 1963, Major L. Gordon Cooper Jr., the Shawnee-born Mercury astronaut who orbited the Earth 22 times, was honored with a parade solely in his honor. His coolness under pressure when the systems of his Faith 7 capsule failed electrified a concerned nation, which breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled off the space program’s first manual reentry.
Writing in the Chicago Tribune that crowds along the extended route topped 4 million people, Vincent Butler reported: “Alone and whirling in space just seven days ago, Maj. L. Gordon Cooper Jr. today bowed to the roars of millions as New York give him the welcome it reserves for its heroes … along Broadway, spectators hung from skyscraper windows and jammed the sidewalks. Placards read ‘Gordon Cooper, You’re Super-Duper!’”
From the steps of City Hall, Cooper said, “I’m certainly very impressed. I never dreamed that I would find myself at a reception like this. Thank you for turning out and paying us this tremendous honor.”
His exploits later inspired Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book The Right Stuff. In the 54 years since, only one other American – Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, feted in 1998 in recognition of his relief efforts for hurricane victims in his native Dominican Republic – has been honored with a solo ticker-tape parade.
Among the seven Americans to be a guest of honor at multiple ticker-tape parades is included Oklahoma’s most famous aviator: Wiley Post.
Post stands among the pantheon of golfer Bobby Jones (1926, 1930), pilot Amelia Earhart (1928, 1932), sea captain George Fried (1926, 1929), general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower (1945, 1960) and astronaut John Glenn (1962, 1998), who were honored twice (sometimes as part of a larger group). Only Arctic explorer Richard Byrd (1926, 1927 and 1930) has been named guest of honor at three ticker-tape parades.
Post and his navigator, Australian Harold Gatty, were honored with a parade on July 2, 1931, following their astounding round-the-world flight that covered 15,474 miles in eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes – shattering the previous record of 21 days set in 1929 by the Graf Zeppelin.
Two years later, Post was honored with a solo parade on July 26, 1933, after becoming the first person to complete a solo round-the-world journey. He and the Winnie Mae set a new record of seven days, 18 hours and 49 minutes. Tossed from windows along with the streaming ticker tape were tiny celebratory parachutes.
Mayor John O’Brien addressed the crowd at City Hall, declaring that Post’s flights around the globe made him a symbol of man’s triumph over the elements. The New York Times reported: “Although it is probable that later discovers and inventions someday would ‘make our airplanes seem as old-fashioned as Magellan’s sailing vessels,’ the mayor said, ‘the first flight around the world by one man alone in a plane will very likely still rank high among aviation’s thrilling exploits.’”
In July 1938, Howard Hughes and his crew would circle the globe in a state-of-the-art Lockheed Super Electra. When asked how his flight compared to Post’s, completed five years earlier, Hughes responded, “Wiley Post’s flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone. It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.”
Two years later, Post would be killed in the Alaska crash that also took the life of his friend, Will Rogers.
In Edmond today, his gravestone marker at Memorial Park Cemetery catalogs his achievements. Under block letters announcing the final resting place of “Wiley Post: Father of Modern Aviation,” the granite slab lists his proudest moments: “first to solo around the Earth, discoverer of the jet stream, self-taught scientist.”
Among the highlights of his career, chiseled into granite: his ticker-tape parades in New York.
“These markers portray history as it was – full of contradictions and regrets”
The history of New York’s ticker-tape parades began with a spontaneous march on Oct. 28, 1886, following the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. The most recent: the July 10, 2015, parade honoring the U.S. women’s soccer team and its World Cup victories.
In the century and a half of celebrations on the mile-long route from the Battery to City Hall, honorees have included presidents and a pope, visiting royalty and champion athletes, astronauts and Arctic explorers, Nobel Peace Prize winners and a concert pianist.
Although pioneers such as Wiley Post and Gordon Cooper are still remembered fondly, history has not been as kind to other notables on the Canyon of Heroes.
New York’s Downtown Alliance, which installed the plaques in 2003, responded earlier this year to calls from groups urging the removal of names such as French leaders who were celebrated after World War I but collaborated with Nazis during World War II.
Henri Philippe Pétain, who commanded Allied forces during World War I, colluded with the Nazis to head the Vichy government in the next world war, assisting occupiers in sending 75,000 French Jews to death camps. French Prime Minister Pierre Laval, festooned with ticker tape in 1931, would go on to serve under Pétain in World War II. After the war, both were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. Laval was executed; Pétain’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in 1951 at age 95.
“Some of the figures who marched in those parades are controversial and, in hindsight, disreputable. But we can’t erase the moment they marched up Broadway, nor whitewash history,” the Downtown Alliance noted. “These markers portray history as it was – full of contradictions and regrets. They do also mark the steps of true giants, like Nelson Mandela and like David Ben-Gurion, and remind us that the course of history is a difficult and complicated one.”