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In Newport News, Virginia for a tennis tournament I had an afternoon free to visit the Battleship Wisconsin, berthed across the bay in Norfolk. Being a child born at the end of the 1950s I was fascinated with World War II and its machinery and weapons. Some may recall my earlier visit to the Military Aviation Museum, which houses working aircraft from the two World Wars. This time it was a ship, but not just a ship: a 57,000 ton Iowa class monster commissioned in 1944 and finally decommissioned in 1991.
The Wisconsin served in the Pacific in WWII, was briefly decommissioned then reactivated for the Korean War, decommissioned again for three decades, then reactivated for the Persian Gulf War. Although battleships as superior warships were obsolete by the end of the Korean War (some would argue by the end of WWII as air-to-sea battles showed their vulnerability to arial bombardment) they still had a powerful effect as a tangible demonstration of the might of the US Navy. As our tour guide put it, you could sail into a harbor with these ships and intimidate the heck out of folks there because of its overwhelming presence.
As you will find out I have a personal reason that makes this visit special.
It is really not possible to convey the true size of this ship in a photo, but this one does give a sense of the scale of it. The bow is on an upward angle so it looms overhead while the superstructure seems closer than it is because it is also just so darn big. Two things I learned about the Wisconsin (and the Iowa class battleships in general):
First, the bow is long and narrow, and the hull expands right around the forward guns. This was a design feature that created an effect of partly nullifying the friction of the bow wave because of a secondary wave generated from the widening. This was part of the reason these ships could travel at 33 knots at full speed. This design created an unfortunate side-effect – the vast fuel storage of the battleships allowed them to be used a refueling ships, but the couplings were placed more or less where the bulge (and the bulge wave) occurred, making it more difficult for the smaller ships to stay abreast, especially in rough seas.
Second, the immense size of the hull gave the Wisconsin lots of what our tour guide called “reserve buoyancy”, meaning these ships could support far more weight than they were initially built with, despite their almost over-engineered armor. This allowed the Navy to continually modernize them – originally adding anti-aircraft guns, and later more and more sophisticated radars to the superstructure and things like Tomahawk cruise missiles, some of which could carry nuclear warheads (the guide was mum about whether the ship was ever actually equipped with these warheads but as you will see it had the infrastructure for them.)
This is the bow-most battery of 16 inch guns, one of three such turrets on the ship. It’s hard to tell the scale but the turret is about twice my height, and extends down five stories. They could fire shells at up to 24 miles and took 80 men to operate. Visitors are allowed inside this forward turret, and once inside it was hard for me to imagine what it would be like with 16 people in there, and the guns firing. Note: contrary to popular belief the force of the guns do not move the ship sideways in the water due to the huge mass of the vessel, but the sea is disturbed in a way that makes it look like that has happened.
Visitors even without a special tour (of either the engineering and engines or the command and control centers – the one I took) are allowed into many areas of the ship. It was a bit like a rabbit warren, although I imagine it would take little time for a sailor to know it intimately. Here is a photo of a corridor that extends for quite some distance. I did not suffer from claustrophobia but I can see how it might affect some people.
You will note the oval doorways; I had assumed it was to prevent water from sloshing from one compartment to another but our guide explained this was for strength. The doorways are cut into major support walls, and the oval opening is the strongest, especially with the extra roll of steel encircling it. In general the ship was a head-and-foot trap – there seemed to always be something to trip over or bash your forehead into.
How well would you sleep here? The Wisconsin had a crew of just under 2,000 sailors so the insides are littered with bunk spaces like this. I imagine also they were far fewer than the number of crewmen as there was always a rotating shift of on-duty personnel and the bunks were shared.
The Captain’s quarters are substantially larger, although far from luxurious. It also had a precious porthole – which I noticed mostly in areas where officers slept and worked. Our guide stressed the Naval hierarchy – when in port the Captain was not generally on board; the commanding officer was in charge of day-to-day routines, but when underway the Captains really earned their stripes. Also, these ships were meant to be the center of a battle group so they would have an Admiral on board to command all the ships. Captains hated having Admirals on board – like having your boss there 24/7 looking over your shoulder. So the flag officer would have his own bridge below the main one, and the guide pointed out the distinct lack of phones and other means of communication to the “real” bridge so the Captain didn’t have to be second-guessed or ordered about in real time. The Captain also had a ready room next to the control center so when under alert he could nap but be available at a moment’s notice.
The ship of course had to be prepared to take care of all the needs of onboard maintenance and support the crew. There were machine shops, canteens (ship stores where the most popular item was cartons of cigarettes), a library, a chapel and so much more. This is the sewing area with its own washing machine. I did not see but can well imagine the actual laundry space which served the entire crew. Again the spaces were completely without portholes or any indication of outside, but for me the sheer utility and functional feel of the areas made me forget I was two decks down in the middle of the ship.
This is one room in the immense mess hall. There were about three this size an several other smaller rooms like it. Next door were the kitchens where I especially noticed the rows of immense Hobart commercial mixers, each about the size of a small refrigerator.
Earlier I mentioned how the Iowa class battleships armor was almost over-engineered. The navigation silo is a good example. Our guide explained that the ships were built with different levels of armor for all areas. The most sensitive areas in the middle of the ship were enclosed by armor called “the citadel”. This included the magazines, the control and navigation and engineering centers. This was armored to the point where it could withstand a hit from its own largest guns. There were other armor systems too: multiple hulls to guard against torpedos and silos like the navigation silo pictured here. The silo was enclosed by 17 inches of special armor steel (which was also used in varying thicknesses in the citadel and gun turrets). As instructed I rapped my knuckles against it and it was like hitting rock, no vibration or ringing. There was also a lining of other thinner armor in all these areas as they discovered that even though the main armor might withstand a direct hit, the immense forces generated turned the inside layer to molten steel which resulted in lava-like blobs of steel bouncing around inside which was not good for the health of anyone in there. This inner layer was designed to contain the molten metal.
The navigation silo and door were amazing to see with its crazy-thick door and little slit viewports – but the guide pointed out they realized after the fact that such thick armor wasn’t really needed and was just wasted weight high up on the ship because if it were hit with a 16 inch shell the pressure wave that resulted meant that no-one would survive inside anyway. He was a little more graphic about it but I won’t go into that detail here.
This is one reason these battleships are all museum ships today: they would be prohibitively expensive to try and break down and salvage. In reality at some point these will likely end up at the bottom of the ocean.
The Command and Control center was part of our special tour. In here was where battle was controlled. This one had been upgraded to include stations for controlling the cruise missiles – pictured is one such station (actually the one that fired the first missiles in the Gulf War). Of special note are the two keyholes to the right of the lover screen, also shown in an insert. These controlled launching of nuclear warheads – two officers on board had special keys and both had to be inserted and turned at the same time in order to arm the button just below. Scary stuff.
Up top I mentioned this was a special visit for me. My Grandfather, Henry Chester Bruton was Captain of the Wisconsin for a tour in the Korean War. In the museum next door there is a shot of the entire ship’s crew assembled on the foredeck, and front and center, there he is, with the four stripes on his shoulder bars. As the plaque says, he was a true war hero, having commanded an S-boat before the war traveling between Tsingtao, Manila and Perth on training and pre-war patrols, then later the USS Greenling, a Gato class sub in the actual war. He earned three Navy Crosses during his war patrols; the Navy Cross is an award second only to the Medal of Honor.
He never wanted to talk about the war, and especially of his time on the submarines, something that frustrated me no end when I was younger but which now I fully understand.