Travel Log: I’m not Kidding Around!

(Niceville, Florida; May 28, 2021) – Spending a day aboard the USS Kidd (DD 661) will transport you back to the hot, sweltering days when our sailors fought and won World War II with hard steel, heavy munitions, and zero air conditioning.

World War II is receding further into our collective rear-view mirror.  Although my generation grew up talking to WWII vets all the time, time is inevitably removing those men and women from our midst.  For many, the only place they can touch and connect with World War II is aboard the many museum ships around the country.

USS Kidd is a Fletcher-class destroyer laid down in late 1942 and commissioned in April 1943.  Kidd is named for Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One.  Kidd’s flagship was the battleship USS Arizona (BB 39), and he was aboard when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Kidd died when Arizona’s forward magazine was hit by an amour-piercing bomb, blowing up the entire forward half of the ship.  Kidd’s body was never found, but his academy class ring was discovered fused to the twisted metal structure of the ship’s ruined bridge.

USS Kidd (DD 661). Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Nathanael Miller, 25 May 2021)

USS Kidd’s crew, in the traditional, irreverently whimsical nature of sailors, adopted the 17th century pirate Captain Kidd as the ship’s mascot and commissioned a stylized, swashbuckling portrait of Captain Kidd to be painted on Kidd’s funnel.  The ship sailed into her first combat operations in October 1943 off Wake Island, the garish portrait of Captain Kidd proudly emblazoned on the funnel.

Kidd was only struck once during the war.  The ship suffered a kamikaze strike on April 11, 1945, off Okinawa.  The plane’s impact killed 38 sailors and badly injured 55 others.   A memorial plaque is mounted on the ship, and an exhibit in the museum building includes photos of each man who died.  Take a moment and study both; the youth of these men is starkly evident as their faces smile out from those photos, forever young.

Like many ships, Kidd was decommissioned shortly after the war, but her retirement was brief.  Brought back into service during the Korean War, Kidd remained an active unit until her final decommissioning in 1964.  The Navy set aside three Fletcher-class destroyers for donation as museum ships: Kidd, Cassin Young (DD793), and The Sullivans (DD 537).

What makes Kidd unique among these three, indeed, unique among nearly all World War II-era ships, is that she was never modernized during her long service.  The ship entered her final retirement in 1964 in pretty much the same configuration she ended World War II in.  Once she was donated to Louisiana and permanently homeported in Baton Rouge, it did not take much work to restore her 1945 appearance.

The restored portrait of ship mascot Captain Kidd on the funnel. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Nathanael Miller, 25 May 2021)

After paying your admission at the Kidd museum building, you’ll take a walk along a long brow to the ship…which might be floating or might be drydocked.  The Mississippi River’s level can fluctuate by up to 45 feet, meaning there are times when Kidd is serenely buoyant, and times when the ship rests on specially-designed permanent keel blocks located underneath her.

Either way, you’re stepping back to the 20th century’s greatest conflict.  The only other ship I’ve toured that was so perfectly untouched by the passage of time is the battleship USS Texas (BB 35).  Texas is, sadly, closed to the public as the ship undergoes major maintenance in preparation for being towed from her current location near Houston to a new homeport in the Lone Star State, so Kidd is the best window you can find to the Navy experience of a World War II sailor.

First off, Kidd is completely not air-conditioned.  The ship is as hot and sweltering below decks today in the Louisiana summer as she was in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.  Bring water with you; there is none available aboard the vessel.  Even a few minutes below deck will enlighten you to the joys of a cool (relatively speaking, of course!) breeze that might sneak in through a hatchway.  The torrid heat below decks provides a starkly visceral understanding why so many sailors abandoned their hammocks to sleep topside while on war patrol during the conflict.

If you think officers had it great aboard ship in their staterooms, you’ll get those rose-colored glasses shattered rather quickly when you see how two officers shared a tiny closet…er, stateroom that included a sink, lockers, and work desks.  Most officers worked out of their staterooms when they weren’t standing watch, meaning you had to hope your bunkmate wasn’t up and working when you were trying to sleep.

As seen aboard USS Kidd, World War II head facilities were rather impersonal and offered only function, not privacy. The modern Navy has evolved to provide individual stalls for sailors! Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Nathanael Miller, 25 May 2021)

It’s an axiom that people need to watch their step and their heads aboard a warship, but if the only ships you’ve toured were World War II battleships and/or aircraft carriers, then you really need to be careful.  Destroyers are small, and the Fletcher-class, such as Kidd, demonstrate this with brutal clarity.  Don’t assume a ‘big’ compartment will allow you to stand erect without looking around first.  I’m 6’4” tall; the average World War II sailor was 5’9”, and those men had to keep their heads down!

Finally, there is one specific item you should seek out aboard Kidd.  This item is something that was worth more than all the gold and silver in the world to the men serving in the Pacific.  This item was coveted so much that ships like Kidd could trade for pretty much anything they wanted because sailors on other ships prized this item’s products with a quasi-religious fervor.

You see, Kidd is one of the few ships in World War II to have an ice cream machine on board.  Making this luxury even more valuable for Kidd’s crew is the fact that ice cream machines were normally only found aboard large ships (battleships and carriers) or hospital ships.  I can testify from personal experience that, even in today’s space-aged Navy with air-conditioned ships, ice cream remains one of the holy grails for many sailors to get their hands on at least once a day!

The Kidd’s ice cream machine was a truly priceless luxury for the sailors while serving in the hot, torrid south and western Pacific. Even in today’s world of air conditioned naval ships, ice cream is a highly prized treat at sea! Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Nathanael Miller, 25 May 2021)

The museum staff—most properly referred to as the ship’s current crew—have bent over backward to ensure Kidd remains nearly seaworthy, and each of them is a walking library of anecdotes, information, and insights into the ship and the war.  Their dedication to keeping Kidd as 1945-authentic as possible, right to the lack of air conditioning, creates a unique and powerfully profound experience.

Baton Rouge is a beautiful, amazing city in its own right.  However, if you only have a small window to spend in this riverside city, you cannot go wrong spending those hours exploring Kidd and her museum.  You don’t need a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor to go back in time; you only need a few hours aboard the remarkable USS Kidd!

Also, if you have a minute, check out my video about USS Kidd at: https://youtu.be/rVP9Kz4YqKM

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