Travel Log: Dueling Warships (Part 1)

Travel Log 2

(Niceville, Florida; March 4, 2018) I’m currently home in Niceville; Phase 1 of Grand Tour USA is done; Phase 2 begins in two weeks. Time to catch up, and I’ll start with a multi-part series on historic ships.

Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina could put to sea some seriously heavy-duty naval armament if they ever got into a huff (well, another huff; there was that nasty dust-up in the 1860s, you know). Actually, my home state of Florida could join in the fray as well, but the odds are not exactly in our favor were we to go ship-to-ship with our northern neighbors.

You see, Virginia and North Carolina can each sortie a battleship. South Carolina can send forth an aircraft carrier, a virtually unsinkable destroyer, and a submarine that is, well, about to be sunk. Florida can…put forth a cargo ship and Coast Guard cutter. To begin this series we’ll see how the Old Dominion stacks up against the Tar Heel State.

Norfolk, Virginia, has long been associated with the Navy. Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval base in the world, and the city of Norfolk has done a lot to capitalize on that relationship. Getting possession of the Iowa-class battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64) was a masterstroke in this effort.

Wisconsin was the last battleship completed by the U.S. Navy. She was built in Philadelphia and commissioned in 1944, serving through the end of World War II. During various phases of storage and activation, she fought in Korea, Vietnam…and finally concluded her career by launching the first Navy shots of the 1991 Gulf War. Following her final decommissioning, the “Wisky” arrived in Norfolk in December 2000 and was permanently berthed at the Nauticus National Maritime Center. It was a great choice of location. The Nauticus building is home both the Nauticus center, a private maritime museum, and the Navy’s free public Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

The Nauticus National Maritime Center owns and provides upkeep for the ship, and has done extensive work with various volunteer organizations to refurbish and open up her interior spaces. A basic ticket costs about $16.00 and gets you admission to the Wisky and the Nauticus’ exhibits. Both museums in the Nauticus building (the Nauticus and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum) are well worth the time, so plan a full day to see them and tour the Wisky. Several nearby parking garages provide ample parking and are in easy walking distance of the Nauticus on Waterside Drive (you’ll pay for parking as you exit the garage).

Visitors to the Wisconsin will find any number of volunteers who will be more than happy to talk about battleship life. Although advancing age will take them away from us in the not-too-distant-future, many volunteers served on the Wisconsin herself. You might just meet a man who stood watch on these decks long ago and now acts as a living historian for the curious.

USS Wisconsin
USS Wisconsin (BB 64) dominates the Norfolk waterfront.

The Wisconsin and the Iowa-class represent the apex of American battleship design. The Iowas were also the last in a specific design lineage known as “fast battleships.” Earlier battleships were slow, trading speed for armor and guns. The idea was for them to slug it out until the other guy (they hoped!) went down. However, by the mid-1930s, the U.S. was moving to the “fast battleship,” a battleship with less armor but greater speed (a trade-off because naval treaties restricted the ship’s physical size). The idea was for the fast battleship to get in, well, fast, blast the other guy to smithereens, and get out before taking much fire herself. By the time the Iowas were built, these treaties limiting size and weight were no longer in force and the new ships were simply stunning achievements of naval architecture combining speed, size, armor, and the biggest guns ever developed by the U.S. Navy in a deadly array never again seen on the high seas. Standing under the Wisky’s bow, looking up at the tiny form of tourists dwarfed by both the ship herself and her big guns conveys a sense of naval intimidation no other class of ship can achieve.

While the Wisconsin was the last battleship the U.S. built, and was the pinnacle of the fast battleship concept, that concept had to start somewhere. To see the beginning of the fast battleships, go south. The first of these once-new fangled battlewagons can be found floating serenely in the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, North Carolina. This is the aptly-named USS North Carolina (BB 55), first ship of the North Carolina-class. Commissioned in 1941, North Carolina enjoyed a brief six-year career (if “enjoyed” is the right world, considering World War II and all). Although extant treaty restrictions cut down on her armor to save weight, North Carolina heralded the new age of the fast battleship and, for a ship designed in the early 1930s, possesses a remarkably modern look. She can easily be toured in a day, and tickets costs between $10.00 – $15.00 depending on your age, military status, etc.

Most of the “Showboat’s” interior spaces are open for touring. When I visited the ship Feb. 2, a new boardwalk was being constructed to allow visitors to walk around the entire ship, and not merely see her portside. The ship’s pierside museum features exhibits detailing the history of all ships named North Carolina, and then leads you outdoors to board the battleship herself.

There are very few North Carolina veterans anymore, but the museum has done an excellent job collecting their stories, both on video and in print. As you tour the ship you’ll find many anecdotes appended to the signs explaining the functions of the spaces. The one that I remember involved a stuck turkey. One holiday in World War II a roasted turkey was being sent from the galley up a dumbwaiter to the officers’ wardroom. One of the turkey’s legs got stuck and jammed the mechanism.

A young sailor (I wish I had written down his name, but I forgot to!) was held upside-down by his legs in the dumbwaiter to free the bird. According to his tale, he realized the only way to uncork the works was to remove the turkey leg using his teeth. He proceeded to eat the offending leg, thereby freeing the bird and dumbwaiter. He also said he ate considerably more than that (after all, being in his early 20s, he had a huge appetite!).

Battleship USS North Carolina (BB 55)
A visitor to the USS North Carolina (BB 55) gets a chance to imagine being at sea, steering the giant ship from her bridge.

The North Carolina offers an audio tour and a new “augmented reality” app for your phone. Download it before getting aboard and, at certain spaces, it will overlay photos from the 1940s atop what you see today, giving you a very direct comparison of the ship’s then-and-now appearances.

A direct comparison of the two gives you a very good look at the final evolution of battleship design by the addition of a new level of speed to naval surface warfare. This new concept, quite by accident, positioned the fast battleships of the North Carolina, South Dakota, and, finally, Iowa classes perfectly for service in a new role undreamt of during their construction. The destruction of the U.S. battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor forced the United States to repurpose the speedy aircraft carrier from somewhat awkward auxiliary units to front-line warships…and the carrier’s ability to strike to over the horizon endered the traditional surface slugfest of the battleships obsolete. The speed of the fast battleships allowed them to keep up with the carriers and take on a new role as premier anti-aircraft and shoreline gunnery support platforms, jobs they did admirably while the carriers provided the striking power in this new world of naval combat. However, aircraft carriers are another story….

Battleship USS North Carolina (BB 55)
A maintenance worker is dwarfed by the hull of USS North Carolina (BB 55).

# # #

For information on visiting the Wisconsin:

For information on visiting the North Carolina:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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