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.
Recommended: How China Plans to Win a War Against the U.S. Navy
Recommended: How the Air Force Would Destroy North Korea
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.
Ship designers reared on Mahan, consequently, fashioned capital ships sure in the knowledge that their creations would take heavy hits in action. They needed resilient hulls and internals to stand in a fight. Accordingly, armor thickness on board Iowas exceeded 17 inches in places. An “armored box” encased the propulsion and auxiliary machinery, along with the fire-control plotting rooms for the main guns. A “citadel”—an armored tube that crewmen entered by way of a door resembling those found in bank vaults—enclosed the helm and other bridge stations needed to navigate, pilot, and fight the ship. And on and on. Passive defenses—Mahan’s “defensive power”—were elaborate by any measure.
Rugged construction wasn’t enough, though. Battleships also needed “redundant” systems, and they needed the capacity to reroute steam, electricity, and other vital services around stricken zones. For example, eight boilers generated superheated steam to drive four main propulsion shafts, along with generators and auxiliary systems. A “fire room” housing two boilers was paired up with an adjacent engine room housing a main engine, two generators, and sundry pumps and support equipment. Four shafts, four freestanding plants.
Wisconsin could get by with four boilers under most circumstances, meaning the ship could stand to lose some of them without losing its fighting strength. Likewise, she was outfitted with two or three of most major pieces of gear. Redundancy appears wasteful from the standpoint of efficiency. Why outfit a ship with multiple identical widgets when one will do the job? And that’s a reasonable objection for routine peacetime steaming—but not when a peer dreadnought like Germany’s Bismarck or Japan’s Yamato is blazing away at you in an effort to puncture your hull and make mayhem within.
You need spares in battle. Lose a boiler, pump, or generator and you need another like it to take up the slack. “Two is one and one is none,” as a saying popular with military folk and outdoorsmen goes. Wisconsin had spares. And piping and wiring systems were networked, enabling engineers to “cross-connect” steam, electricity, and other vital fluids between plants. Take a hit in, say, a fire room, and the engineering officer of the watch, or supervisor—my job for a time—could order steam cross-connected from another plant. Bypassing damage supplied the motive force to keep the engine, generators, and other systems running.
So much for the wonders of dreadnought design. What made the Iowas awful? Their advanced age. From time to time battleship proponents, some rather senior, agitate to put the ships back into service, mainly to fill the void in major-caliber naval gunfire support left when they retired in 1991-1992. Enthusiasts note that marines and soldiers going ashore on contested beaches need large volumes of fire support to survive—much as they did at Normandy and Okinawa. And so they do.
Central to enthusiasts’ brief for battleship recommissioning is the claim that these are actually young vessels despite their calendar age. (Wisconsin turns seventy-five next year.) The mileage on the odometer remains low! And indeed these ships led short service lives. They fought the Imperial Japanese Navy for a year or two, returned to action during the Korean War and a few years’ training duty afterward, and then came back for the last time in the 1980s—again for scant years.
Such claims make superficial sense. Wisconsin plied the sea for just fourteen of her seventy-five years. It stands to reason the old battlewagon has plenty of steaming life left in her. Trouble is: chronological age does matter. To name just one problem, pipe walls and seams between sections of pipe decay while sitting idle for thirty years, as the Iowa class did. Things leak. My first job was overseeing Wisconsin’s firefighters and shipfitters, including the welding and machine shops. My welders and machinists had their hands full keeping our systems tight so that, say, a fuel line didn’t spring a leak and spray the hot face of a steaming boiler.
And yes, that happened once upon a time. Threatening a major conflagration. While the weapons department was handling ammunition.
Or in a similar vein, we sprung a leak in a magazine sprinkler one time after I changed jobs to oversee the ship’s 16-inch main guns. (The “16-inch” nomenclature is misleading. It refers to the width of the bore, the internal sleeve within the barrel. The guns are 67 feet long—by no means petite.) Upon isolating and cracking open the system to troubleshoot the problem, the gunner’s mates discovered the seals were of World War II vintage and made of leather. Leather rots. Designing and fabricating new seals from rubber—in the dead of night, naturally—was great fun, and not time-consuming at all. Trust me.
And that leaves aside the hazards of operating old guns, ammunition handling machinery, and ordnance. Some flaw in the system brought about the 1989 Iowa turret explosion that felled 47 gunners in our sister ship—and nearly gave my wife a heart attack when a TV station in our homeport of Norfolk announced on the air that “a U.S. Navy battleship” had “blown up” in the Atlantic that day. Iowa and Wisconsin were both underway in the same general vicinity at the time, and both for gunnery practice. Investigators never fully solved the mystery of what went wrong on board Iowa.