The world continues losing its World War II-era veterans to the inevitability of aging, but North Carolina’s state memorial to world history has remained anchored since 1962, going full throttle in memories and education in tribute to the “Greatest Generation.”
Moored along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, the Battleship North Carolina (BB-55) beckons everyone for a walk, climb and pause, not just for Veterans Day on Sunday, but every day of the year.
Start a self-guided stroll aboard its restored decks and parts of nine levels, with the city’s historic downtown district lined across the river, and don’t be surprised to see two to three hours sail by in a breeze.
A Baby Pegasus pictured from the movie “Fantasia” in 1940 is no fluke, for Disney Studios designed insignias for more than 1,200 U.S. military vessels, squadrons and units in World War II, for free.
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The towing hawser line, or wire rope, wrapped around the gun turret, measures 2 1/4 inches thick, looking like a clenched fist, and it would unwind 900 feet.
Yellow arrows lead guests across the ship. Going below the main deck, bring an appetite for tidbits, such as in the galley, by a “scuttlebutt,” or drinking fountain, where personnel would hang out to chat, and the chapel, by a mess hall. A reversible brass cross shows its two sides: for Catholic Masses one way and Protestant services the other.
A wall card states that during times of worship, a white flag with a blue cross would fly over Old Glory, the only such flag authorized for that.
Galley stays’ cookin’
The galley atmosphere cooked in multiple ways, for meals at 630, 1130 and 1630 hours – don’t forget to think in 24-hour military time here. Twenty-five cooks and 100 messmen kept the food and tables flowing. The menu stretched beyond meats and potatoes, with “gedunk,” slang for ice cream, shakes and sweets at a soda fountain, where a Pepsi cost 5 cents.
With care in every step, descend into the engine room on stairs that almost equal a ladder, and when walking on narrow grates and platforms, look ahead as well as down and up, by boilers that heat water to 850 degrees and turbines that cranked the ship ahead with 121,000 horsepower.
Like the need to feed crews three times a day, the laundry function never slowed down, with six men who rotated on 12-hour shifts in the washroom. Each division on the ship had its designated wash day every week, and every person’s attire, down to the underwear, were stenciled with identification.
Sports had a place, too, with such teams for baseball and basketball, and movies were shown on the messdeck when the ship was out of a combat zone.
The flow from life’s necessity for bodily relief also had a process, as seen in the difference between the “heads,” named because they typically were situated on the ship’s figurehead, on the bowsprit. Chiefs’ lavatories had toilets in separate stalls with doors, and enlistees made do without doors on long troughs.
It matched the deeper bunks and thicker mattresses and longer lockers that officers had over the rest of the complement, sleeping on metal bunks stacked several high. Then again, the chiefs also paid extra money for a more elaborate menu.
The ship’s sick ward spanned 30 berths with one surgical bed, and everyone in that hospital shared one latrine with a small tub.
Fitting in to fire
Once back outside on the main deck, move up to inspect other amenities that made this sea weapon so modern. Climb into tight quarters of a turret with three 16-inch, .45-caliber guns. On the bridge, the admiral’s chair remains open, for a panoramic view, and the large steering wheel nearby.
Also when in higher quarters, check out both types of compasses that guided the ship: magnetic, the backups to the gyrocompasses, with their increased accuracy with the Earth’s geographical poles.
The North Carolina, in service from 1941 to 1947, marked the first of 10 “fast battleships” commissioned for the Navy in World War II, to protect aircraft carriers, and she pressed on even after taking a torpedo in 1942 that ruptured an 18-by-32-foot hole in the hull.
No matter what direction or order anyone goes in touring the North Carolina, she remains an attraction for visitors from around the world. A movement by the Tar Heel State’s citizens to save her from plans for scrapping in 1958, a grass roots “Save Our Ship” effort without any tax dollars, resulted into her opening to the public as a museum on water in October 1961.
Still self-supporting, through sales from admissions and souvenirs, as well as donations and investments, the battleship continues making waves, not in oceans anymore, but in reminders of the heavy sacrifice the U.S. military has fought to preserve freedom – a duty that never ends.