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A FLUKE OF TIMING brought us onto the battleship on December 7. The weekend my wife and I chose to beat the Christmas crunch included the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, from which the USS North Carolina would someday wage war.

We had noticed the enormous ship from afar while traveling its namesake state’s coast. Moored across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington’s water front, the North Carolina is hard to miss, painted as it is in “measure 32,” a color scheme intended to confuse submarine crews. Here, the geometric pattern makes the 728-foot battlewagon pop out from the marsh where it is docked, serene but still formidable, bristling with more than100 guns. The North Carolina hosts about 200,000 paying visitors a year and battles a less obvious, more persistent enemy: the elements. Corrosion at the waterline is evidence of a hull badly needing repair.

Our tour took us around and inside the North Carolina to see how the ship worked and how the more than 2,000 crewmen lived and fought, from sleeping and sanitary arrangements to loading the 16-inch guns and tracking enemy air craft while the vessel escorted carriers in the Pacific. Most of this was new to me. During the war my father skippered a PT boat in the Pacific, but he was not much for war stories. Once, with my young son and father-in-law, a retired navy pilot, I visited another vintage battleship, but we only made a circuit topside. As a reporter I spent a day aboard an aircraft carrier, a trip that showed me how far removed my life was from what men did in a war at sea. For the un- or semi-initiated, a day on the North Carolina is a tangible and compelling history lesson.

That Saturday morning we caught up with Frank Glossl who, like other volunteers portraying crewmen, wore a seaman’s uniform. Glossl chairs the nonprofit Friends of the Battleship North Carolina, but also assumes the role of a radarman first class. Visitors can wander the ship unescorted, but we were fortunate to have Glossl as our guide to tell the story of this 35,000-ton war machine, a remarkable creation even by today’s sophisticated technical standards.

A tight stairway took us down to the first of the lower decks, the crew’s quarters. Chairs and tables in mess areas emphasize utility, not comfort, and the galleys have industrial-grade appliances. In a bunk area, narrow mattresses racked four and five high illustrate what “close quarters” actually means. Rudimentary toilets and showers—a wartime sailor had 150 seconds maximum to scrub—offer neither elbowroom nor privacy.

This floating fortress had a laundry, a tailor and shoe shop, barbershop, post office, general store, and fully equipped dentist’s office and sickbay, including operating room and medical laboratory. With a machine shop, printing press, and darkroom—not to mention a soda fountain and ice cream parlor—the North Carolina was truly self-contained.

A bomb or shell could penetrate the top deck, designed to explode ordnance before it reached the armor protecting the engines, magazines, fire-control computers, and communications gear. Besides factoids like those and the ship’s overall enormity, what is striking about the North Carolina is the heavy look and feel of its machinery, from the bulky analog computer that controlled the main guns to the elevators and conveyors that hauled shells as heavy as 2,700 pounds to turrets to be propelled as far as 23 miles by six 90-pound bags of gunpowder.

Commissioned in 1941 as America’s first new dreadnought since the 1920s, the North Carolina acquired the nick name “Showboat,” steaming in and out of New York Harbor to undergo sea trials. On July 11, 1942, seven months after the Japanese attacked Hawaii, the battleship arrived at Pearl Harbor. The crowds of well-wishers lining the shore puzzled the crew. “The bands were playing, the people were cheering, the fire boats were going off,” Glossl said. “As they came around the point, it hit them. Salvage operations were under way.” Pearl Harbor was a battered junkyard. At that moment, the North Carolina constituted America’s heavy fleet in the Pacific, and the new fast battleship was a sign of hope.

Near the end of our tour with Glossl we climbed to the bridge. During heavy fighting, the captain and his personnel there could take refuge in a conning tower with 16-inch armor. In the combat information center, on the right day, you might see volunteers reenacting how crewmen tracked aircraft and ships.

The narrow passageways and water tight hatches inspire an intricate dance: duck head, raise knee, step over ledge, straighten—but not too enthusiastically. Some areas were open for browsing; others were behind Plexiglas. On my own, I made my way below to an engine room, where chemical engineer John Whitley was in character as a water tender first class. Four propellers, each with its own power plant, could push the ship to 28 knots, or 32 mph. Whitley recruited visi tors to demonstrate by voice and gesture and signal how orders traveled from the bridge to the battlewagon’s bowels, where crewmen dialed in the vessel’s speed.

Throughout the ship, placards explain life aboard, often using vintage photos accompanied by accounts from the men of the North Carolina. Boatswain’s Mate First Class William Taylor described the scene on August 24, 1942, when, on a crew of a five-inch gun, he fought in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the ship’s first action: “A powder can was placed in the tray, then a shell and then rammed. The gun would fire and the hot case would be ejected and (sent out into) the scuttle…. The powder came up through the deck with a primer protector on it. The powder man pulled the protec tor off, then loaded. This time he didn’t remove the protector and when rammed, the breech didn’t close. My job was to open the hatch, remove the powder can and get rid of it. My hot-case man had a tough job when the cases didn’t go out. They would bounce and he would have to catch it and throw it out. Usually the first or second case would catch him under the nose and he would be a bloody mess.” That day North Carolina gunners shot down seven planes and helped down seven others.

Having participated in every major Pacific campaign and earning 15 battle stars—in the process surviving a tor pedo strike and losing only 10 men—the North Carolina was decommissioned in 1947. Placed on inactive reserve, the old warrior was scrapyard-bound when state residents raised money to adopt it as a memorial to the more than 10,000 North Carolinians who died in the war.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the North Carolina was transferred by the U.S. Navy to the state in 1961. The Friends underwrites upkeep and improvements with campaigns, like one under way now that will fund educational programs and extensive repairs to the hull.

One option for that work was to tow the ship to Norfolk, which would have required dismantling part of the super structure so the vessel would fit under the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Instead, the extensive dry-dock activities will take place on-site, inside a cofferdam—more economical and practicable. Still, it would have been something to see that grand old battleship making its way up the Atlantic coast, even under tow.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.