Naval Expert Who Served on a Battleship Told Us Why They Can't Make a Comeback

James Holmes

Key point: A youthful fleet will provide fewer opportunities to acculturate through vintage ships.

What was it like serving in USS Wisconsin, the Iowa-class battleship that now adorns the Norfolk, Virginia riverside as a maritime museum?

Well, it was life-changing for this junior officer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I will never forget cruising across the Singing River in Pascagoula, Mississippi in my fire-engine red Honda CRX, and seeing the familiar shape of a battleship’s bow—familiar from old Victory at Sea episodes, and from visiting the USS Alabama museum growing up—heave into view for the first time against the backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico.

Wisconsin lay alongside a pier jutting out of the river’s east bank, home to Ingalls Shipbuilding. Ingalls shipwrights were resuscitating the ship after her thirty-year slumber at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Wisconsin was a 58,000-ton behemoth boasting armor over a foot thick in places exposed to enemy gunfire; big guns capable of lofting projectiles weighing the same as a Volkswagen Bug over twenty miles; a family of guided missiles for assailing hostile fleets or shore targets hundreds of miles away; and a propulsion plant capable of keeping up with a fast aircraft-carrier task force.

But that’s just the outward stuff. However impressive, technical specifications cannot explain why ships command such affection from their crews, or admiration from landlubbers. In short, ships are more than just military capabilities. A “ship” is more than a hunk of steel that rides the bounding main. It is an expression of human ideas and history in steel. It’s a composite of materiel, human beings, and history. Therein lies its allure.

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