Saturday, October 22, 2011

USS North Carolina(s)

Military technology has an amazingly short life for the amount invested to develop it. I was reminded of this fact when a couple of days ago, some friends and my wife and I visited Wilmington, NC for a quick getaway. We poked around the historic Old Town on the Cape Fear River. My friend and I decided to tour the USS North Carolina, the World War II battleship which is now a National Historic Landmark and floating museum.

We started our tour in the informative shore-side museum. I was surprised to learn that there had not been one USS North Carolina but four ships bearing that name. There was also one CSS North Carolina to add to the complement. These ships span the eras of naval technology as a startling-clear indication of just how quickly naval technology has changed.

Model in Museum
The first USS North Carolina was a sailing frigate commissioned for duty in 1824. The ship usually carried 74 cannons but was designed to handle as many as 102 guns. She (ships are always referred to in the feminine) was considered the most powerful naval vessel afloat at the time of her commissioning.  The ship spent most of the middle 1820s in the Mediterranean, showing the U.S. colors to demonstrate the strength of the country and to open trade with the region. She also spent time in the Pacific in the late 1830s defending American trade routes. By 1839, she was taken off the line and converted to more mundane duties as a receiving ship to house young naval recruits. Her time of active duty amounted to only 15 years. The reason she was considered to be obsolete was that she was too large and bulky for the nimble duty needed in naval maneuvers of the day.

The next North Carolina was a Confederate ironclad of the Civil War era. Already, fighting ships were converting from sail to steam and armor plating was the newest technology, even as cannons to pierce such armor grew ever larger. The CSS North Carolina was built in Wilmington, NC in 1863 but the new marine engineering of ironclad ships was not the long suit of the local builders. The ship was unstable and the hull was riddled by sea-worms within a year.  It sank in the Cape Fear River leaving an inauspicious record but it did demonstrate that the era of the sailing ship had passed and steel armor and steam were the technology of the future.

In 1905, the keel was laid on the next USS North Carolina, a cruiser of the era of the Great White Fleet. The ship was enormous by previous standards. It was over 500 feet in length and displaced 14,500 tons.  The cruiser carried a powerful array of cannons with the largest being 10-inch bore main guns. The cruiser (also known as ACR-12) saw combat service in World War I escorting convoys of ships across the North Atlantic. From the time she was commissioned to decommissioning amounted to 13 years.

Model of Bridge and 10-inch guns of ACR-12 in Museum

By far the largest of the ships bearing the name USS North Carolina was the battleship BB-55. This was the ship we were about to tour. The BB-55 was commissioned in 1940, just before the beginning of America's involvement in World War II. The new North Carolina was 728 feet long and displaced over 40,000 tons - three times what her predecessor had displaced. The battleship was on sea trials in the Caribbean when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. She spent the first part of 1942 hunting for the German battleship Tirpitz before being deployed to the Pacific Theater in the middle of that year. For the rest of the war the ship was engaged in protecting aircraft carriers in virtually every campaign across the Pacific islands. She was torpedoed once and left with an enormous hole in her bow but it was not enough to sink her. When the war ended in August of 1945, she sailed back to Boston and was decommissioned in 1947 - a service life of six years and eight months. Her undoing? Aircraft. The modern aircraft found on ever-larger aircraft carriers were easily capable of destroying even a hardened battleship.

The Navy kept four of the World War II-era battleships in the reserve fleet for years and the USS Missouri actually participated in the shelling of Baghdad during the Iraq War. But the North Carolina's days of service were over. She stayed in mothballs for 14 years and was going to be sold for scrap when the enterprising citizens of Wilmington and North Carolina decided to try to save her as a memorial and museum. She was moved to her present berth in Wilmington in 1961 and opened as a museum.

But this was not the end of the ships named USS North Carolina. The latest in the long line of ships is the most advanced class of atomic submarines. The new sub, which is configured to be able to deliver not only missiles and torpedos, but complete Navy Seal teams to trouble spots, was commissioned in 2008. She is now stationed at Pearl Harbor.


Side View Looking Towards bow

It was a beautiful fall morning with crisp, cool air as we strolled the teak decks of this state-of-the-art (for 1936) battleship. Even today, some 75 years later, she is still impressive.

Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

The massive 16-inch guns, three mounted in each of the turrets, one aft and two forward are the heart of the battleship's armament. We scrambled inside the aft turret and I was astounded to see the amount of hardware and control systems needed to make these guns work.

Inside Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

What we saw in the turret was only part of a huge support system that went down five decks from the main deck. These 16-inch guns could propel a 1200 pound shell out of the barrel at over 1500 mph, with a range of 20 to 25 miles!

Diagram showing multiple levels in gun turrets

The tour below decks was visiting a city - bakery, laundry, doctor, dentist, operating rooms, soda fountains, sleeping quarters, shoe repair - it was all there to maintain the crew of 2400 sailors.

GE Turbine powering one of four propellors

The ship was propelled by four main steam turbines that each powered a propellor, moving the ship forward at almost 30 mph. In places, the ship's armor was 16-inch thick steel plate. In fact, about 40 percent of the total weight of the ship was accounted for in the armor alone.

If you are ever near one of these large World War II battleships, I would certainly encourage you to go. While the BB-55 remains, Her sister ship, the USS Washington, was scrapped. A very similar class of battleships (known as the Iowa class) has several ships still in existence.  The USS New Jersey is berthed in Camden, NJ. The USS Missouri is part of the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii and the USS Wisconsin is now a museum in Norfolk, VA.

Each generation of vessel carrying the name of USS North Carolina was an example of state-of-the-art naval technology in its day. None of these vessels remained at the cutting edge for even a decade. The enormous investments in design and development for most weapons systems has a very short half-life.  It would be pleasant to think that a day might arrive when such investments are no longer necessary. Until then, the ever-evolving technology of war will be part of the price of peace.

I wonder what the next ship that carries the name USS North Carolina will look like? Given the brief lives of these vessels, we might not have to wait that long to find out.

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