In 1916, the U.S. Navy had visions of commanding the world’s greatest fleet—and a big naval appropriations bill that promised the construction of ten battleships armed with 16-inch guns. But the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty ended those dreams for the foreseeable future; only three of the battlewagons were completed.
After a building hiatus of more than a dozen years, the keels were laid for a pair of modern 16-inch battleships, the North Carolina (BB-55), namesake of the two-ship class, and the Washington (BB-56). The ships were commissioned within five weeks of each other in the spring of 1941 and went on to serve with distinction throughout the Pacific war. The North Carolina earned 15 battle stars and the Washington 13.
Several years after World War II ended, the sister ships were decommissioned, as were three of the four more-modern Iowa-class battleships. But while the Iowas would be recommissioned and periodically modernized, the North Carolinas remained mothballed until stricken from the Navy’s official inventory of ships on 1 June 1960. The Washington was scrapped the next year, but her sister was purchased by the state of North Carolina for $330,000—the funds having been raised by Tar Heel schoolchildren who saved their spare change for the effort.
In her second career, the ship became one of the state’s premier tourist attractions and a must-see for battleship and naval buffs, as I discovered during my recent visit to the Battleship North Carolina Memorial at Wilmington. Best of all for World War II history aficionados, she still has the same armament and equipment she had when decommissioned in ’47. Also, she arrived in Wilmington with plenty of spare parts—coated in Cosmoline and wrapped in paper—in her storerooms, “When something breaks, we can pull a part out of stock and repair it,” the museum ship’s executive director, retired Navy Captain Terry Bragg, told me.
Coming aboard, I was immediately impressed by the line of 20-mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns, only a few of the many that line the main deck of the North Carolina. In November 1942, they replaced 26 .50-caliber water-cooled machine guns. One of the strengths of the museum ship is the large number information panels throughout the vessel. According to Captain Bragg, his team makes a “great effort to preserve the patina of the World War II experience.” One of the ways is by including in most of the panels the recollections of North Carolina sailors, set against a Caroline blue background.
The ship’s Bofors 40-mm quad mounts replaced 1.1-inch antiaircraft guns, also in November 1942. On some of the Bofors, visitors are able to elevate the guns and take aim at an imaginary attacking plane.
While the North Carolina still has her many 5-inch guns in twin mounts, the focus of my visit were her big 16-inch guns. Shown here are the trio in Turret Number 3. The great thrill of my visit was exploring inside two of the ship’s three 16-inch turrets.
After climbing a ladder and entering a hatch at the rear bottom of the turret, I encountered the structure’s rangefinder. The battleship’s original main-battery fire control relied on two optical rangefinders aloft and wider-based optical rangefinders in each 16-inch turret that protrude out the structure’s sides. Radar was later incorporated into the system. To further explore the turret, you must stoop under the rangefinder.
The next space is lined with panels of switches and dials. To the left are portholes that allow you to look into the areas where the gun captains and their crews worked.
Gunpowder bags, presumably behind a 16-inch shell, are rammed into one of the big guns.
Turning around, I was excited to see a Ford rangekeeper, in this case Mark III, Model 1. Naval History magazine readers may recall Thomas Wildenberg's “Armaments & Innovations” column about this type of early analog computer.
I turned the dials and spun the wheels of the ones in Turrets 2 and 3. Unfortunately, other visitors seemed uninterested in these innovative fire-control computers.
Later during my visit, I ventured belowdecks, where I followed marked tour routes that wound deep into the ship. Directly below Turret Number 2, I entered the Projectile Ring, which was lined with 16-inch shells. After being maneuvered onto hoists, they would be lifted up to the turret.
Two decks below I toured one of the turret’s eight magazines, where gunpowder bags were stored in metal cans.
The bags were passed via powder scuttles into the powder handling room, where they would be transferred to hoists for the trip to the turret. Here’s a handling-room view of one of the hatchways.
The USS North Carolina’s scoreboard and awards. The flags represent shore bombardments, a merchant ship sunk, and aircraft shot down. Since my visit, a cofferdam topped with a walkway was built around the battleship to facilitate repairs to her deteriorated hull. Well worth a visit, the Battleship North Carolina offers an immersive World War II naval experience.