Travel Log: Under the Guns, Part 2

(Niceville, Florida; June 9, 2021) – Some of the biggest guns ever to go to sea will have you in their range once you’re within 20 miles of Mobile, Alabama, and USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.

Commissioned in August 1942, the ‘Bama’ had her genesis long before the war began.  Owing to stipulations in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, U.S. battleships were limited in their size for years.  Therefore, to create a ship with powerful guns and enough armor to realistically go up against a hostile nation’s battleships, the South Dakota-class were built rather short and stumpy.  Visit the older North Carolina-class USS North Carolina (BB 55), or the final battleship the U.S. ever built, the Iowa-class USS Wisconsin (BB 64), and you’ll be struck by the extreme difference in length between these three classes of warship.  For example, the South Dakota-class of ships, such as Alabama, are 680 feet long; the Iowa-class, such as Wisconsin, are 887 feet long.

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)

Don’t let the lack of 200+ feet give you an impression the South Dakota-class ships were inadequate battleships.  Quite the reverse; the wartime record of Alabama alone testifies to both the ship’s sturdy design and the grit of the men who sailed her.

Today the battleship dominates the skyline of Mobile, Alabama, as you drive along Interstate 10.  Her most distinctive weapons, the three turrets and their nine 16” guns could fire a 2,700 lbs. shell nearly 23 miles.  These shells, which weigh more than many cars today, could be either high explosive (good for shore bombardment against enemy forces) or armor-piercing (good for splitting open the armor belt on an adversary’s ship).

Once you board the ship, you can go inside turret #1 up forward of the superstructure and discover just how cramped the gunnery crews had it.  There’s barely enough room inside to change your mind.  Upon entering, you’ll be confronted with a long tube spanning the width of the turret.  This is the stereoscopic range finder, used by the gun crews to put the weapon on target in case they lost contact with Alabama’s fire control officer.  Crawling under the rangefinder provides grand vistas of the cramped quarters around the big guns’ breeches.  Silk bags of power, 50 lbs. each, were loaded into the gun’s breech behind the shell.  A good gun crew could fire each weapon in the turret two times per minute; sometimes three.

The big guns carried by Alabama could fire a shell weighing more than 2,000 lbs. over 20 miles. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

Alabama’s caretakers mapped out several color-coded self-guided tour routes allowing you to explore the ship in an orderly fashion.  You’ll be able to go below into the barbette under the turret that houses the shells, powder bags, and mechanism for not only getting the munitions up to the turret, but also for spinning the turret around.  These are all tight spaces, so watch your head, your shins, and also your shoulders.  A warship, even a modern one, is an unforgiving industrial environment, so be mindful you don’t become the latest casualty of Alabama.

Battleships are famous for their big guns, and rightly so.  These ships were built at a time when ship-to-ship combat was the way naval warfare was conducted.  However, even as the U.S. was perfecting the design of the battleship, a new-fangled method of warfare was emerging that forced battleships to evolve even further.  This was, of course, the advent of carrier warfare.  Rarely during World War II did surface ships engage each other (in the Pacific, for instance, there was only one battleship-against-battleship duel).  However, the big guns of the battleships proved to be the perfect weapons for supporting landing operations, and the ships’ great size enabled them to field an impressive array of antiaircraft weaponry.  Take a second look at Alabama, and you’ll see the ship literally bristles with enough weaponry to make the Battlestar Galactica quite jealous!

If a battleship’s purpose is to carry great weapons across great waters, then its heart and soul are the men who kept her in working order on those great waters.  Although far roomier than a submarine or destroyer, a battleship is still a ship.  The South Dakota-class were designed for a crew of around 2,000 men; wartimes realities meant they carried nearly 3,000 aboard.  This crew of officers, enlisted men, and U.S. Marines literally bumped elbows traversing narrow passageways and tight spaces necessitated by a design designed to meet treat stipulations while limiting the spread of damage and fire during battle.

Antique technology such as this speaking tube on Alabama were actually highly efficient means by which sailors could communicate between decks. Although speaking tubes are no longer on Navy ships, other ‘old fashioned’ tech, such as sound-powered telephones, are still in used due to their durability and reliability in the face of battle damage. Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 5 June 2021)

The ship is old enough that some of her men still slept in hammocks strung from steel hooks in the mess deck’s overhead (those hooks are there today).  Other men, including the chief petty officers in their berthing, slept on racks that were more akin to stretchers than the sturdy racks I slept in during my career in the modern Navy.  Many sailors slept where they worked, and those who had to rack out in the mess decks were sleeping in areas carrying a lot of foot traffic, even between mealtimes.

Descend into the engine rooms where recorded sound simulates the roar made by the ship’s boilers (trust me; from having served on one of the last, traditionally-powered steam-driven ships in the Navy myself, I can tell you they got the volume right!).  After winding your way through these dark, enclosed spaces with no window to the outside world, ascend topside and climb up to nearly the top of the ship’s fire control tower.  This will let you pass through officers’ country and see the staterooms and wardroom the ship’s officers lived in.

Today the clean, brightly lit ship can seem slightly removed from the hot, gritty reality that was World War II, but the ship saw combat for several years.  Alabama is credited with shooting down 22 enemy aircraft and earning nine battle stars.  She sailed for 218,000 nautical miles, placing her at such historic events such as the Marianas Campaign of 1944 and the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.  Following the war, Alabama participated in Operation Magic Carpet, carrying 700 soldiers and Marines home from the war.  Decommissioned in 1947, the ship was donated to the state of Alabama in 1964 and opened to the public in 1965 as the first and most impressive artifact of the expanding Battleship Memorial Park.

USS Alabama (BB 60). Mobile, Alabama. (Nathanael Miller, 05 June 2021)

Spending a few hours to stand under the big guns of Alabama is a worthwhile way to spend a day.  The ship and the park provide an excellent education on many aspects of World War II and subsequent military history.  There’s no need to battle boredom when you stop to tour Alabama’s very own battleship!

Check out Part 2 of my two-part video on Battleship Memorial Park at: https://youtu.be/4XKy54-hFfQ

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

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