Travel Log – Under the Guns, Part 1

(Niceville, Florida; June 9, 2021) – Drive within twenty miles of Mobile, Alabama, and you’ll find yourself in range of some of the biggest guns in naval history.

USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is a hub for naval history in Mobile, Alabama.  Originally the final home for the battleship USS Alabama (BB 60), the park has expanded over its 56-year history to include a submarine, numerous aircraft, artillery and personnel carriers, and memorials to the many men and women who have served and died in service to our great nation.  You can tour the park in a day, but you’ll need at least a couple of days to really dive into the depths of history preserved on its campus. 

USS Alabama was commissioned in 1942 and decommissioned in 1947 after World War II. She earned nine battle stars, shot down 22 planes, and led the U.S. fleet into Tokyo Bay for the formal Japanese surrender. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is centered on the imposing centerpiece of the battleship Alabama.  Towed to Mobile for use as a museum ship in 1964 and opened to the public in 1965, the ship was a lonely sentinel guarding her new homeport for many years.  However, the museum staff had plans, plans big enough to be worthy of the giant 16” cannons sprouting from Alabama’s deck.

The battleship was joined by the Gato-class submarine USS Drum (SS 228) in 1969, and the aircraft on display began coming in shortly thereafter.  With a growing fleet of military artifacts, the park was off and running to the magnificent facility it is today.   There is so much to cover that Part 1 of this two-part series will look at the aircraft displays and Drum; Part 2 will take you aboard Alabama herself.

The battleship will dominate your view as you turn into the park, but the numerous aircraft and the submarine sitting high and dry quickly catch your attention as you park.  Sitting under the shadow of Alabama are also several vintage tanks and artillery pieces.  For a naval history facility, Battleship Memorial Park presents a wide swath of history.  Whatever branch of service happens to be your personal favorite, you’ll find something from that service that will resonate with you.

The Aircraft Pavilion and the aircraft located in open air on the campus will take you from the Second World War to the modern day.  Once you catch your breath, step inside the Aircraft Pavilion itself to purchase your admission tickets, and then prepare to get lost in the annals of aviation and maritime history.

1949 North American F-86D. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

One of the most historically significant aircraft is a North American P-51D Mustang flown by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.  The Tuskegee Airmen were African-American pilots, aircrew, and ground maintenance and support personnel.  These warriors flew missions ranging from intercepting enemy fighters to bombing missions…all while fighting racial segregation here at home.  The Tuskegee Airmen’s squadrons are credited with destroying 112 enemy aircraft in the air and 150 on the ground; taking out 950 ground vehicles such as rail cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles; and destroying 40 enemy boats and barges.  The squadrons and individual airmen racked up numerous awards, such as three Distinguished Unit Citations, at least one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 744 Air Medals.

The P-51D is but one of the many aircraft you can visit.  A Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane floats gently on its display rack, relic of a time when battleships like Alabama relied on the eyes of far-seeing pilots before radar came into its own.  A Douglas AD-4N Skyraider sits across the way with its wings proudly folded.  The Skyraider was developed for World War II, but arrived in service in late 1945 after the war. Despite this bad timing, the Skyraider flew operational missions until the 1970s; a propeller-driven aircraft with a rotary engine that held its own well into the jet age.

The futuristic delta shape of a Lockheed A-12 Blackbird, a reconnaissance aircraft built for the CIA, throws its mysterious shadow over the smaller aircraft.  Forerunner to the more famous (and virtually identical) SR-71 Blackbird, the A-12 flew from 1963 to 1968 when its successor (the SR-71) took flight.  These wildly varied birds provide a succinct overview of mid-to-late 20th century military aviation all under one roof.

Once you’ve completed your tour of the wild blue yonder in the Aviation Pavilion, prepare to dive into the depths of submarine history aboard the dry-docked USS Drum.  Drum was moved ashore into permanent dry dock cradles in 2001, easing maintenance considerations and providing visitors the unique opportunity to examine the propellers, rudder, and underwater portions of the hull.

USS Drum was commissioned in 1941 and decommissioned in 1946 after World War II. Drum is the oldest Gato-class submarine still in existence. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

Drum was commissioned November 1, 1941, barely a month before the U.S. was forced into World War II, and spent the war fighting the Japanese during 13 war patrols.  She took out her first kill, the Japanese seaplane tender Mizuho, on May 2, 1942, shortly after beginning her first war patrol.  The boat would go on to sink 14 more ships during the war and ranked eighth of all U.S. submarines in tonnage (80,580 tons) sunk.  Drum was awarded 12 battle stars.  Decommissioned in 1946, the submarine was donated to Battleship Memorial Park in 1969.

Visiting the submarine on a crowded day provides a glimpse into the confined life of submariners.  The press of tourists exploring the boat requires you to squeeze into some unusual positions as you try to politely pass one another.  It doesn’t take much imagination to envision yourself squeezing past fellow sailors underwater, perhaps while hiding below a formation of enemy ships intent on depth-charging you into another time zone.

Drum, the oldest Gato-class boat still in existence,retains her World War II configuration and equipment by virtue of her decommissioning in 1946.  You see the boat just as her sailors saw her during their long, hot, noisy days in the Pacific.  Nearly all her spaces are open to the public—the fore and aft torpedo rooms, engine rooms, control center, and officers’ closets…er, staterooms.

I highly recommend you visit Drum before you head aboard the battleship.  Alabama and her kind are legitimately impressing and imposing, but Allied sailors fought and died underwater as well as above it.  There are 52 U.S. submarines and 3,600 sailors who never came home from the war.  Unlike terrestrial battlefields, you can’t simply go to the site of a naval engagement in the middle of the ocean to pay your respects and learn about the fight, but you can understand the lives and service of those who are ‘eternally on patrol’ aboard a priceless relic like USS Drum.

USS Drum’s tight quarters. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

Part 2 of this column will take you aboard the battleship Alabama herself.  At 45,000 tons, the battleship is clearly in a different weight class than the 2,090 ton Drum, but never forget that it was boats like the 2,090 ton Drum which took out such giants as the Japanese aircraft carriers Taiho and Shokaku, and forced the great Japanese battleship Musashi back to port for repairs.  The Drum’s story is worth your time, so go explore the depths of submarine history!

Check out Part 1 of my two-part video on Battleship Memorial Park at: https://youtu.be/LtFSwKLwAjA

USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park website: https://www.ussalabama.com/

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