Where: Wilmington, North Carolina
Trip Date: 10/6/17
For the last few months I have been slowly scouting new places to live. At the same time it has been a good chance to explore some historic locations a little farther from home. My most recent location was Wilmington, North Carolina, and while there I decided to check out a few of the local attractions. How could I pass up the opportunity to go wander around a battleship? Honestly, I’m kind of surprised it has taken me this long to write an article about a ship.
A Ship Called North Carolina
Sitting quietly in the Cape Fear River, towering over the surrounding landscape, is the USS North Carolina. Although this World War II era battleship has been out of service for 70 years now, she is still a center of activity serving as a floating museum ship, welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
This North Carolina is actually the third in a line of ships to bear that moniker. The first was launched in 1820. This 74-gun ship was designed for a position in the line of battle and was creatively called a “ship-of-the-line” or “line-of-battle-ship.” That mouthful was later shortened to the much simpler and more board-game-worthy “battleship.”
The second North Carolina was an Armored Cruiser launched in 1906. In 1915 the Navy chose this ship as an Aeronautic Ship for the Naval Flying Service, and she became the first ship to launch an aircraft by catapult while underway.
And that brings us to the topic at hand…
A Brief History of the Battleship North Carolina
In 1937 the keel for BB-55 was laid down at the New York Naval Shipyard. After over two and a half years of construction, the completed USS North Carolina was finally launched in 1940. As the first American battleship the Navy had built in two decades, and the lead ship of the North Carolina Class battleships—a class which contained only one other ship, the USS Washington—she was absolutely state of the art.
She was the first in a series of “Fast Battleships” commissioned by the US Navy. The North Carolina was designed to be able to sail at speeds as high as 28 knots (about 32 MPH), although, defects in her propulsion system prevented her from actually attaining this.
At nearly 729 feet in length, a beam (width) of 108 feet, and a draft of only 33 feet, she carried a crew compliment of around 2,339 officers and enlisted men. North Carolina and her sister ship Washington were also the first two US battleships to have twin rudders. This gave the ships much greater maneuverability, and a backup incase one rudder was damaged in battle.
The ship contained four engine rooms, one for each of her propellers. I was able to tour Engine Room #4 at the aft end. Even now the engine room is a warm, stuffy maze of machinery, pipes, and knobs. I could not imagine being a member of the engineering crew who had to work in these rooms at sea, when temperatures could get as high as 135 degrees. I start sweating at 75 degrees.
North Carolina also possessed a formidable anti-aircraft battery. While escorting the Saratoga and Enterprise at the Solomon Islands in 1942, her anti-aircraft cover was so heavy that some members of the Enterprise crew thought she was on fire.
Speaking of guns, the tour also took me through the number 2 turret on the forward deck, and I mean inside of it. I was able to go below decks to see where the shells were stored and loaded, as well as one of the eight powder magazines, where the walls were lined with metal keg-like barrels containing gun powder—well, I assume they no longer actually contained gun powder, otherwise that tour was a lot more intense than I thought. Either way, imagine working in a small room full of explosive material while actively being shot at.
130 men worked inside this turret during combat to deliver ammunition, projectiles, and gun powder at a rate of two rounds per minute. That is one round every thirty seconds, while slinging barrels of gun powder around. There is a reason I do art instead.
During World War II, USS North Carolina participated in nearly every major battle in the Pacific, and earned 15 Battle Stars.
Life Aboard Ship
Although there is probably no way to make being crammed in to a floating metal box with over 2,000 other men exactly “comfortable,” life on ship was as pleasurable as could be, under the circumstances. The North Carolina contained many amenities to keep the crew happy and entertained, including a soda fountain café that served ice cream, and movie projection equipment for screening films in the mess hall.
When the ship’s supply of fresh milk ran out, there was no need to fear. The North Carolina was also equipped with a “mechanical cow.” This contraption—that looked much like a large steel refrigerator—could turn butter, powdered milk, and water into a liquid that by all accounts was nearly as good as the real thing.
The ship also provided a print shop, a cobbler, laundry service, and of course a barber to keep the crew’s hair within regulation. Apparently, visiting the barber required a pass from a petty officer. Since this was clearly too much trouble for some of the crew, it was not uncommon to find “bootleg” barber shops throughout the ship where crewmen would provide free haircuts to each other.
Of course, as you can imagine, the bunking situation was not very comfortable. The bunk rooms were crammed with beds, one on top of the other, and five bunks high. There were no ladders, so if you occupied the bunk on top, you just had to hope you didn’t step on your crewmate’s head as you climbed.
Each bunk came with a mattress, mattress cover, fireproof cover, two blankets and two sheets. Men had to purchase their own pillow, so of course, some of them just used a blanked as their pillow.
Of course, if you didn’t want to sleep below decks, packed in a room like sardines with little airflow, you could always choose to sleep elsewhere—provided an officer knew where to find you. Some men chose to sleep on deck. Admittedly, this sounds rather peaceful, as long as the seas were calm or it didn’t suddenly begin to rain. Otherwise you were in for a rude awakening.
And now for the big question: the bathroom. There were six “heads” for enlisted men on the ship, each containing toilets and showers, and 200 men shared each one daily—officers had their own heads, rank has its privileges. If you have ever shared a bathroom with a sibling or roommate, you can sympathize, sort of. But imagine having to share with 200 other people. There was absolutely no privacy.
By the way, the term “head” comes from olden days when going to the bathroom meant unloading your “cargo” over the side at the bow near the figureHEAD. Except, in those days, going to the head just meant going to the bow of the ship; not specifically to do your business. You learn something new every day here.
Battleship North Carolina Today
The Navy decommissioned USS North Carolina in 1947, and in the early 1950s they scheduled her to be scrapped. However, a campaign by citizens of North Carolina re-determined her fate. School children across the state saved their spare change and lunch money, and were able to raise the $330,000 needed to purchase the ship from the Navy.
In 1961 she was moved to her final resting place in the Cape Fear River directly across from downtown Wilmington where she now operates as a museum to the public, and a monument to the North Carolina residents who served and died in World War II.
- Like her predecessor, the Battleship North Carolina also carried aircraft. The ship was equipped with trainable catapults to launch the OS2U Kingfisher Observation Floatplanes she carried.
- The North Carolina received so much attention during her construction and initial trials that she was nicknamed “Showboat.”
- She is currently painted in a variation of the camouflage she would have worn during WWII (the blue and gray patterning).
- The ship’s garbage was put into a grinder, mixed with water, and released over the propellers to avoid leaving a trail that could be followed by enemy ships.
- I will assume you are acquainted with the term “scuttlebutt.” Well, a scuttlebutt was actually the ship’s water fountain. Crew would gather around the water fountain and trade gossip. So “Scuttlebutt” is very literally water cooler gossip.
- I think I already mentioned this, but the North Carolina served as the battleship escort for several aircraft carriers during World War II in the Pacific, including the USS Saratoga, and USS Enterprise (CV-6, not NCC-1701).
- The fourth and newest addition to the line of North Carolina Naval Vessels is a Virginia Class Fast Attack Submarine, commissioned in Wilmington in 2008.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the North Carolina—if you couldn’t tell by this incredibly long article. The tour offers an excellent cross section of life onboard a battleship, as well as anecdotes from the men who served on her. If you are ever in Wilmington, I highly recommend a visit.