Several World War II-era warships are preserved as memorials, but there is only one Showboat.
Its official name is the USS North Carolina, and none other than radio legend Walter Winchell named it after the Broadway musical "Showboat," which was enjoying a revival when this showboat was commissioned on April 9, 1941. Winchell was amazed by its size and capacity for up to 2,300 men. Yet neither Winchell nor anyone else could have predicted the mighty record this battleship was to amass during World War II.
The North Carolina, permanently docked on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina, a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean, participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations, according to battleshipnc.com. Its anti-aircraft barrage helped save the carrier Enterprise in the battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands in August 1942. The Showboat sank a Japanese troop ship and destroyed at least 24 enemy aircraft during the war. It survived a Japanese torpedo hit on its hull in the South Pacific in September 1942.
Leo Bostwick, a sailor on board that day, offered his memories of the attack when we visited. He was in one of the engine rooms at the time the ship was hit. Bostwick didn't panic. He casually recalled, "I went right to my battle station."
A walk on the North Carolina's decks seems endless. One room leads to another, then another, then another, and while your feet might be hurting well into your visit, you can't help but realize that this behemoth of a ship was a virtual city in itself.
On the self-guided tour, visitors encounter a multitude of interpretive signs packed with practical details, photos of everything from mail call to the mess hall, and personal remembrances from crew members. In the engineering rooms, one eyeballs a labyrinth of pipes and a mosaic of dials and knobs. And while visitors might need an engineering degree from MIT to understand the mechanics of operating the eight Babcock & Wilcox three-drum express type boilers, most will be more intrigued by a fireman's personal memory of the rigors of working in engine rooms where the temperature reached 136 degrees.
Indeed, the most memorable information is not of ships and machinery, but of people. Despite being on a warship, the men kept their senses of humor, often including a proneness to pranks. According to one of the display plaques, radar man Jerry Johnson recalled a visit to the North Carolina's barber shop, saying, "There was this guy who complained about his haircut after he had given the barber a buck, so the barber placed the dollar bill on his head and shaved around it." And if some guy on laundry duty didn't like you, you might find knots as tight as piano wire tied into your freshly cleaned pant legs and socks.
On this seafaring city, sailors enjoyed perks that went beyond necessities such as sharp haircuts and clean uniforms. Movies were shown on mess decks when the ship was not in a combat zone. According to the display, one boatswain's mate, Donald Rogers, remembered seeing "Destry Rides Again" with Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart "all over the South Pacific."
When a sailor hungered for the taste of the corner malt shop back home, he merely had to head to the gedunk — Navy lingo for ice cream and other sweets and the name of the ship's soda fountain. A post menu offers prices: an ice cream sundae was 10 cents; all cold drinks were a nickel.
As for everyday meals, water tender William H. Fleishman recalled, "Food aboard the ship was generally good," except for unexpected catastrophes like picking bugs out of their daily bread and the time a few hundred boxes of fresh potatoes turned rotten due to the humidity of the South Pacific and the ship's poor air circulation, according to the display.
Holiday meals were especially anticipated, with ham, turkey, pumpkin and mincemeat pies followed by cigars. Unlike Army soldiers and Marines who ate cold rations out of their helmets, battleship sailors sat at a table, where they ate hot meals served on trays. Still, daily meals often got routine. According to the display, machinist's Mate Jerry Gonzalez recalled a diet straight out of a Monty Python routine: "In 1942, everything was Spam, Spam, Spam — for breakfast, dinner and supper with eggs. Things got a little better after a while."
Elsewhere, the ship's recreated store No. 2 is fully stocked with anything a sailor at sea could want: cartons of Lucky Strike and Chesterfield cigarettes; cans of Barbasol shaving cream; a choice of Lifebuoy, Lux or Palmolive soaps; and an ample selection of candy bars, including Baby Ruth, Snickers, Mary Jane and Oh Henry!
Yet despite the treats, this was hardly the Queen Mary. Visitors can climb aboard the single mattresses covering the hanging metal berths, then dream of sleeping on one on a swaying ship. The standing projectiles and the 16-inch guns housed in three rotating turrets are reminders of the raison d'etre of the USS North Carolina. Most guns were fired from the main battery plotting room, located three levels below the main deck, where the aim and fire of all three turrets used a combination of radar, a control switchboard and mechanical analog computers. (Yes, in the 1940s, computers were already playing a role in warfare).
If you go ...
What: Battleship North Carolina
When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily during the winter and 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily during the summer, with some holiday exceptions
Where: 1 Battleship Road, Wilmington, North Carolina
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How much: $14 for ages 12 to 64; $10 for military and seniors; $6 for ages 6-11; free for children under 6; ticket sales end one hour prior to closing. Allow at least two hours for the self-guided tour, at least four hours if you plan to peruse the many displays.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing from the University of Southern California in 1977. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.