I Served Aboard One of the Last U.S. Navy Battleships. And It Changed My Life.
What was it like serving in USS Wisconsin, the Iowa-class battleship that now adorns the Norfolk, Virginia riverside as a maritime museum?
Well, it was life-changing for this junior officer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I will never forget cruising across the Singing River in Pascagoula, Mississippi in my fire-engine red Honda CRX, and seeing the familiar shape of a battleship’s bow—familiar from old Victory at Sea episodes, and from visiting the USS Alabama museum growing up—heave into view for the first time against the backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico.
Wisconsin lay alongside a pier jutting out of the river’s east bank, home to Ingalls Shipbuilding. Ingalls shipwrights were resuscitating the ship after her thirty-year slumber at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Wisconsin was a 58,000-ton behemoth boasting armor over a foot thick in places exposed to enemy gunfire; big guns capable of lofting projectiles weighing the same as a Volkswagen Bug over twenty miles; a family of guided missiles for assailing hostile fleets or shore targets hundreds of miles away; and a propulsion plant capable of keeping up with a fast aircraft-carrier task force.
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But that’s just the outward stuff. However impressive, technical specifications cannot explain why ships command such affection from their crews, or admiration from landlubbers. In short, ships are more than just military capabilities. A “ship” is more than a hunk of steel that rides the bounding main. It is an expression of human ideas and history in steel. It’s a composite of materiel, human beings, and history. Therein lies its allure.
Think about it. A ship of war is a self-propelled weapon—a weapon where you live. It’s home—a small city with all the human variety that typifies cities. And—especially in the case of vintage vessels like battlewagons—it connects the crew to bygone generations of seafarers. Ghosts wander its decks, passageways, and compartments. In the case of Wisconsin those ghosts include figures of some repute, including Richard McKenna, an enlisted engineer and author of The Sand Pebbles, and Elmo Zumwalt, a future chief of naval operations and our navigator during the Korean War.
Keeping company with ancient mariners is just plain cool. Every fighting ship has its own story deriving not just from the vessel’s physical characteristics but from the individual sailors who make up its human contingent, with all their virtues, quirks, and occasional vices, and from past exploits in which it took part.
Battleships were wondrous and awful ships in brute material terms. Wondrous because of the sober fatalism that went into their design philosophy. Missile-age naval doctrine exhorts U.S. naval commanders to strike down a hostile “archer”—a missile-toting ship or warplane—before he can let fly his “arrow,” or missile. Tacticians vector in combat aircraft or fire missiles to engage enemies far away, and preferably before they get off a shot. Warships built by this philosophy are fitted with minimal armor to shield their innards. Lightweight construction earned them the moniker “one-hit ship” because a single missile strike typically puts a modern surface combatant out of action. Fail to stop inbound threats at a distance and you find yourself in deep trouble.
Battleships were built to a more primal standard. Surveying the age of sail, Alfred Thayer Mahan defined “capital ships” as “the backbone and real power of any navy,” heavy hitters that “by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers, are capable of taking and giving hard knocks.” That is, these were brawny ships able to dish out and absorb heavy hits in duels against rival battle fleets. Gunfire was their chief weapon, stout construction their way of withstanding enemy gunfire and hitting back.
Old-school naval architecture proceeded from Mahanian assumptions. Rather than bowmen sniping at one another with arrows from long range, surface combatants in the age of steam were more like armored knights hacking away in close-quarters combat. There was no striking down foes at long range. Blow met counterblow. Hence warriors in the age of chivalry wore heavy armor and bore shields to ward off attack.