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Historic USS North Carolina, Saved Once By Schoolkids’ Nickels And Dimes, Being Rescued Again From Insidious Threat

The battleship USS North Carolina survived the savage combat of World War II and was snatched from the scrap heap in 1961 by a determined effort of her namesake state’s residents. Now, more than a half-century after the battleship was brought to Wilmington to become a war memorial and museum, North Carolina residents again are making a...

Billings painting
The battleship North Carolina’s sleek design caught the eye of famed New York painter and muralist Henry Billings, who painted this stylized portrait of the ship around the time of its commissioning in 1941. The ship was such an imposing weapon of war that sailors nicknamed it “The Showboat.” Photo from the Battleship North Carolina Museum website.

The battleship USS North Carolina survived the savage combat of World War II and was snatched from the scrap heap in 1961 by a determined effort of her namesake state’s residents. Now, more than a half-century after the battleship was brought to Wilmington to become a war memorial and museum, North Carolina residents again are making a major effort to protect the iconic warship from a threat more insidious than an enemy’s torpedo or the scrapper’s cutting torch.

Sections of the ship’s steel hull are badly rusted, but the cause of the problem is more complex than the simple process that occurs when you leave your pocketknife in the rain. A major part of the North Carolina’s problem is caused by galvanic corrosion, which can happen when different types of metals come into contact in the presence of saltwater. The result is that one of the metals will begin rapidly rusting while the other rusts more slowly or not at all.

Retired US Navy Captain Terry Bragg, director of the Battleship North Carolina Museum, displays a piece of badly corroded hull that was removed from the USS North Carolina
Retired US Navy Captain Terry Bragg, director of the Battleship North Carolina Museum, displays a piece of badly corroded hull that was removed from the USS North Carolina. Photo by Willie Drye

The North Carolina is a huge, complex machine composed of many types of metals and it’s sitting in saltwater. In some places the steel hull has badly deteriorated. Recently, retired Navy Captain Terry Bragg, executive director of the Battleship North Carolina Museum, displayed a section of steel removed from the battleship’s hull. There’s a sizable hole where corrosion has eaten through the steel. And what’s left is thinner than a dime in some places.

That was not the case when the North Carolina put to sea 76 years ago. The hull was at least a half-inch thick, and in places much thicker.

There was a lot of bad news for Americans in early April 1941 just before the battleship was commissioned. Yugoslavia had been invaded by German troops and Greece was about to fall to the Nazis. In London, German bombs fell on a railway station during the morning rush hour.

“A hundred or so men and women pouring from the train in a rush so they wouldn’t be late for work got the full effect of the blast,” NEA reporter Paul Manning wrote.

On April 9, about 1,500 invited guests that included Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and North Carolina Governor J. Melville Broughton gathered at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the commissioning of the North Carolina. The powerful new weapon was a bit of reassurance for an edgy nation soon to be dragged into World War II.

The North Carolina was the first warship to be fitted with three 16-inch guns in each of her three turrets, and a photo of the barrels of those huge guns was on the cover of Newsweek. The magazine described the guns—which could each hurl more than a ton of steel and high explosives at a target more than 20 miles away—as “sea sluggers.”

“United States Navy Gets World’s Mightiest Ship,” said the headline of a two-page photo spread in Life magazine that also noted that the North Carolina was built at a cost of about $70 million—almost $1.2 billion in 2016 dollars. It was the first battleship to be built without portholes in its hull, a design feature that made construction of the ship simpler and added to the strength of its frame.

The North Carolina’s advanced design and sturdy construction would come into play when the US entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The battleship was hit by a Japanese torpedo on September 15, 1942. Five crewmen were killed and the ship had to steam to Pearl Harbor for repairs. But the North Carolina returned to duty and was a mainstay of the US Pacific Fleet throughout the war.

North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford watches the USS North Carolina being towed to a berth in Wilmington in 1961. Photo by Hugh Morton, from the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Still, the era of mighty seagoing steel behemoths was over when World War II ended in 1945. The North Carolina, once the pride of the US Navy, was docked with other decommissioned warships in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1947.

And there the battleship sat until 1958, when the Navy decided there was no reason to keep it even as a reserve warship. Navy officials announced that the North Carolina would be sold and cut up for scrap.

That didn’t sit well with residents of the state whose name the battleship had carried around the world. Soon after the Navy’s announcement, Wilmington resident Jimmy Craig began discussing with civic clubs and veterans’ organizations the idea of bringing the battleship to that city as a war memorial and tourist attraction.

The idea caught on. In 1960, a committee headed by photographer Hugh Morton was formed to determine whether the battleship could be acquired from the Navy and moved to Wilmington. Newspaper publisher Orville Campbell of Chapel Hill, a member of the committee, said he’d never seen anything like the outpouring of enthusiasm across the state for bringing the battleship to North Carolina.

New Hanover County raised money to buy land on the Cape Fear River across from downtown Wilmington, and the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the creation of a commission to raise money to bring the ship to Wilmington.

The commission faced a daunting task. But the state’s residents were good for the tab. Even schoolkids chipped in with nickels, dimes and quarters until around $330,000—about $2.7 million in 2016 dollars—was contributed.

Tugboats moved the North Carolina down the coast from New Jersey and into a slip on the Cape Fear in October 1961. For 56 years the battleship has overlooked downtown Wilmington and become a star of southeastern North Carolina’s tourism industry. About 13 million visitors—more than the state’s estimated 2015 population of 10 million—have toured the battleship since 1961.

The battleship is even popular with tourists from Japan, said Wilmington resident John Cowand Jr., a retired chemical engineer who entertained visiting Japanese businessmen when he worked for Federal Paper (now International Paper). “They always requested a tour of the battleship,” Cowand said.

Displays include a list of the names of more than 10,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines from North Carolina who died in World War II. Bragg, the museum’s director, said the North Carolina is “the most historically accurate ship of World War II,” and is packed with artifacts and reminders of that conflict.

Workers are building a permanent, $7 million cofferdam around the USS North Carolina. The structure will allow repairs to be made on the ship’s corroded hull. Major contractors for the project include Orion Marine Construction, Andrew Consulting Engineers, and Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects. Photo by Willie Drye

Some of those artifacts are still being revealed. Two years ago, an elderly gentleman who’d served on the ship during the war brought his son and grandson to tour the North Carolina. He asked to go to the quarters he’d shared with another officer. There, he peeled back a piece of vinyl wall and removed several empty liquor bottles he and his roomie had stashed after they’d sneaked the booze aboard and drained the bottles.

Construction crews are building a huge, permanent cofferdam around the battleship so that water can be temporarily drained and corroded sections of the hull repaired. The cofferdam also will allow future repairs to the hull. A permanent walkway around the ship also is being built.

Workers are building a 14-foot-wide walkway around the USS North Carolina in Wilmington. Work is being funded by a $3 million contribution from the North Carolina State Employees Credit Union. Photo by Willie Drye

Bragg said the work is ahead of schedule and should be finished before the November 2017 deadline.

Anyone wanting to make a a contribution to the work can go to a special website. Or checks can be made out to Friends of the Battleship North Carolina. Contributors should write “Generations Campaign” on the memo line of the check and mail it to Battleship North Carolina Generations Campaign, PO Box 480, Wilmington NC 28402.

Willie Drye was one of the North Carolina schoolkids who sent in nickels and dimes to help save the USS North Carolina in 1961. Listen to him talk about his latest IPPY-award-winning book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold An Impossible Dream In Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 10th year.

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Meet the Author

Willie Drye
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.