The battleship USS North Carolina was towed to its present location on Oct. 2, 1961. On April 29, 1962, the decommissioned warship was dedicated as a memorial to the 10,000-plus North Carolinians who served in World War II.
In 1958, when the U.S. Navy announced plans to scrap the mothballed battleship, a member of Wilmington’s American Legion Post 10, James Craig, came up with the idea of saving the ship as floating museum and memorial. Craig convinced Gov. Luther Hodges, who recruited Wilmington native Hugh Morton, a noted promoter (and proprietor of Grandfather Mountain) to head the “Save Our Ship” campaign. (Morton had earlier been the founding president of Wilmington’s Azalea Festival.)
Morton recruited native Tar Heels such as Andy Griffith and Wilmington’s own David Brinkley to endorse the plan, granted honorary commissions to major contributors as “admirals” in the North Carolina Navy and solicited nickels, dimes and pennies from North Carolina’s schoolchildren. (Each of these young contributors were mailed a free pass to the battleship as soon as it opened.)
Morton’s campaign worked, exceeding its fundraising goals and collecting $330,000 to cover the costs of towing the North Carolina from its mothball port in Bayonne, N.J., to Wilmington.
Thousands lined the Cape Fear to see the battleship arrive at its new home on Eagles Island, across from downtown Wilmington. James Craig — who conceived the battleship memorial — was not among them. He died on Oct. 14, 1961, of severe burns sustained in a plane crash a few weeks earlier, while surveying the future battleship’s site.
Today, the Battleship North Carolina Memorial is administered by an 18-member state commission. appointed by the governor. The memorial’s staff maintain the ship and its large collection of artifacts, photos and documents as an educational tool to show new generations what life was like aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in the Second World War.
It also honors the memory of the five other vessels to bear the name “North Carolina,” from an 1820s ship-of-the-line to its current namesake, a Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine. (The current USS North Carolina, SSN-777, was officially commissioned May 3, 2008, in ceremonies at Wilmington held near the Battleship Memorial.)
Self-guided and recorded tours will take visitors to the main parts of the ship including one of the massive 16-inch gun turrets. (A major restoration is underway to make the battleship more handicapped-accessible.) Staff estimate that a full, leisurely tour can take about two hours, although enthusiasts might take even more time.
Periodic “Battleship Alive” weekends bring living-history interpreters aboard to man the North Carolina’s stations and explain their duties to tourists. “Hidden Battleship” tours occasionally take small groups into areas of the ship not normally open to the public. In spring, the “Fabulous Fantail Film Festival” screens vintage movies on Friday nights for visitors on the battleship’s stern deck — where sailors watched movies away from combat during the war.
Commissioned on April 9, 1941, the USS North Carolina (BB-55) was the first of a new class of fast battleships, along with its sister ship, the USS Washington. It participated in every major naval offensive of the war in the Pacific. Although, it never filled its intended role — battling Japan’s battleships, gun to gun — it found a useful mission providing much-needed artillery support to U.S. assault forces ashore and guarding the USS Enterprise and other American aircraft carriers with its formidable battery of anti-aircraft guns. (The ship’s crew is credited with downing at least 24 enemy aircraft.)
The North Carolina is slightly more than 728 feet long, and its beam (width) is more than 108 feet. In wartime, it displaced 44,800 tons when fully loaded and its superstructure is the height of a 15-story building.
Its wartime complement was 144 commissioned officers and 2,195 enlisted men, including a detachment of about 100 Marines. In addition to its massive 16-inch and 5-inch gun batteries, the ship had its own machine shop, its own barber shop, print shop, tailor’s shop and photographic darkroom — plus a soda fountain and ice cream for off-duty sailors.
A special attraction is the Vought Kingfisher floatplane, one of just seven of these remarkable aircraft still surviving. These small reconnaissance planes were launched from catapults on the stern of the ship for observation missions and for the rescue of downed air crews in the water.
Today, the Battleship Memorial is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at other times. (The ship closes at 6 p.m. on Independence Day to allow preparations for the annual downtown fireworks display.)
The battleship is located off U.S.74/76/421, at 1 Battleship Road, Wilmington [Map this], just west of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and just south of the S. Thomas Rhodes Bridge.
Regular admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors (aged 65 and older) and members of the military (active duty and retired), $6 for children ages 6-11 and free for children aged 5 and younger. Discounts are available for groups.
Date posted: March 6, 2009