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The Navy's Living Artifacts : History Comes Alive for Those Who Come Aboard

Charles Hillinger's America

March 28, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MOBILE, Ala. — The silhouette of the big battleship looms large in the fleeting rays of the setting sun as motorists on transcontinental I-10 whiz by.

The "Lucky A," the 680-foot World War II battleship Alabama with its awesome 16-inch guns aimed at the skyline of Mobile, is one of 40 naval vessels on permanent exhibit in U.S. ports. The vessels saw action in conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to Vietnam.

Exhibiting famous warships has been an American tradition ever since Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1828 wrote his poem, "Old Ironsides," arousing public sentiment that saved the frigate Constitution from the scrap heap.

"Old Ironsides," built in 1797, continues as an exhibit ship to this day in Boston Harbor--manned by a crew of 52 U.S. Navy sailors, and still commissioned as an active ship.

Lasting Memorials

The 39 other Navy vessels exhibited on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, the Great Lakes and inland waterways were decommissioned, struck from the Navy roster of active ships, before being towed or sailed to become museum pieces.

"Navy ships on public exhibit are living artifacts, a significant part of naval history, lasting memorials to those who fought and died on them," said retired Navy Cmdr. Robert Brewer, 68, executive secretary of the Historic Naval Ships Assn. of North America, in his office at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

"History comes alive for those who come aboard."

More than 5 million people a year visit the retired Navy ships, reports retired Navy Capt. Paul Vaitses, 65, president of the association and since 1970 captain of the decommissioned battleship Massachusetts, moored at Fall River, Mass., a ship he served on as a junior officer for two years during World War II.

Array of Vessels

There are four battleships on permanent exhibit, the Alabama, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas; two aircraft carriers, the Yorktown and Intrepid; the heavy cruiser Little Rock, the cruiser Olympia, the frigate Constellation, 15 submarines, three destroyers, mine sweepers, PT boats and various other smaller vessels.

All of the battleships are state parks except the Massachusetts, which is set up as a nonprofit education corporation. The ships are on permanent loan from the Navy with the stipulation the Navy can ask for them back at any time.

The four battleships were saved from being scrapped and sent to the boneyard by aggressive campaigns in their namesake states.

Children in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and Massachusetts contributed nickels, dimes and quarters and adults contributed dollars to raise money to tow the ships from mothball moorages and provide permanent adequate berthing for the vessels.

It took two months and 5,600 miles in 1964 to tow the battleship Alabama from Bremerton, Wash., through the Panama Canal to Mobile. Today, next to the space museum at Huntsville, the battleship is the most popular attraction in the state.

No Tax Money Used

"The 40 ships are self-sustaining without any tax money, supported by ticket sales, food services, gift shop receipts and contributions," said Vaitses. "Annual receipts from all of the exhibit ships in the country total in excess of $30 million."

It is costly to keep the ships in first-class condition as demanded by the Navy. The Navy inspects the vessels once a year to make sure the ships are maintained in a dignified and proper manner.

"Our operating budget is $900,000 a year," said retired Navy Capt. Bill Diffley, 59, for 10 years "captain" of the Alabama. "We have a 14-man maintenance crew, five office personnel, ticket sellers, security guards."

Bill Parsons, 41, crew chief, has worked on the Alabama 20 years. "The ship is painted every two years. All machinery is oiled and greased and kept in working order. We keep her shipshape," he said.

Al Boltz, 84, was hired aboard the Alabama when he was 70. "I wanted to enlist in the Navy in World War I, but I was turned down because I was too young. I tried to get in World War II," Boltz said, "but I was too old.

"Life takes funny turns. Here I am spending the twilight years of my life on a battleship."

He was asked what he likes about working on the Alabama. "Well, they feed pretty good," Boltz replied. What do you do? he was asked. "I'm the cook," he said, laughing.

The 13-deck Alabama came by its nickname, the "Lucky A," during World War II, because it went through some of the fiercest naval battles in the Pacific, but none of its crew was killed in combat. The Alabama was at Truk, the Gilbert Islands, Hollandia, Leyte and Okinawa and led the fleet into Tokyo Bay as the war ended.

On the Alabama, as on all the other exhibit ships, men and women enlist or re-enlist in the Navy from time to time; crews who served aboard the ships have annual reunions. There are weddings on the ships and memorial services for those who gave their lives while serving on them.

Boy and Girl Scouts stay overnight on the battleships--13,000 of them last year on the Massachusetts--sleeping in bunks sailors slept in, eating in the same mess halls, seeing film depicting the history of the battleships. Visits to the historic vessels are popular field trips for schoolchildren.

For visitors, it is a rare opportunity to roam a ship stem to stern--up and down the 13 decks on the four battleships, into the big gun turrets, on the bridge, in the captain's quarters, the combat center, seeing the engine rooms, chart rooms, cruise quarters, even the old Gedunk stands (soda fountains), sculleries and lucky bags (where found items were stowed).

The crew on the Alabama during its 47 months of active duty during World War II numbered 2,500.

The recently recommissioned battleships New Jersey and Iowa and the Missouri, currently being brought back into service, are 200 feet longer than the four retired exhibit battleships.

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