- USS North Carolina is back in the water of the Cape Fear River for the first time since May 2018.
- The battleship has been undergoing its most significant restoration work in more than five decades.
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Last month, a major milestone in the repair efforts of the World War II “fast battleship” USS North Carolina (BB-55), which has been undergoing the most significant restoration work in more than five decades.
Last week, the floodgates to the cofferdam were opened, and for the first time since May 2018 the majestic warship is back in the water of the Cape Fear River.
The $11 million project to preserve the ship included the construction of the cofferdam, which began in August 2016 to allow work crews to drain the water from around the hull and address repairs.
Atlantic Coast Industrial Marine Construction, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based company then spent the last three years cutting and replacing the brittle steel on the bow – while the entirety of the hull was repainted to help preserve it.
Since 1961 the ship has called Wilmington home, and the warship is the center attraction of the Battleship North Carolina Museum.
Hull restorations completed
On July 19, Battleship North Carolina officials held a ceremony as the cofferdam was refilled.
“The Battleship North Carolina will be preserved for decades … so in the next century, when most of the ships from the second World War and the first World War, will have been lost to corrosion and [inability to raise funds for repairs], the Battleship North Carolina will be here representing the state as the state’s memorial to the 10,000 North Carolinians who served and died during World War II,” said Capt. Terry Bragg, the executive director of the battleship, to reporters, WECT TV reported.
Bragg also noted that the USS North Carolina hadn’t actually been out of the water for nearly 70 years and had last been fully repaired back in 1953. The Navy recommends that warships undergo maintenance every 20 years.
“We literally had holes in the hull,” Bragg told WRAL.com. “And we had a number of interior spaces that were flooded to the overhead.”
History of the showboat
Laid down in 1937, the USS North Carolina was completed in April 1941 and at the time of her commissioning, she was considered to be among the world’s greatest sea weapons.
As the lead ship of a new class of battleships, North Carolina was also the first battleship to join the US fleet in 16 years. She was a new design of “fast battleships,” which under the Washington Naval Treaty system limited her displacement and armament, but it resulted in a vessel that could keep up with the faster-moving aircraft carriers.
As part of a clause in the Second London Navy Treaty, her armament was increased from the original nine 14-inch guns to nine 16-inch guns. She also was armed with 20 5-inch/38-caliber guns in 10 twin mounts. USS North Carolina’s wartime complement consisted of 144 commissioned officers and 2,195 enlisted men, including 86 Marines.
The battlewagon took part in the Guadalcanal campaign, screening aircraft carriers engaged in the campaign, and she took part in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in late August 1942.
While damaged by a Japanese submarine, the warship later returned to take part in the campaigns across the Pacific including the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands, and later took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After undergoing a refit, she took part in offensive operations in support of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and later carried home American personnel after the war as part of Operation Magic Carpet.
Since April 1962 the fast battleship has served as a floating museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in November 1982 – in part because the application noted that the ship was in excellent condition and had remained largely in its wartime configuration.
However, retirement hasn’t been kind to the ship. Time and the elements have taken a toll, one that even threatened her future.
In 1998 the museum’s operators even launched Operation Ship Shape, a donation drive to secure funds to make repairs. Yet, the damage had been so great that in 2009, the US Navy gave two directives. The ship would either be scrapped or restored.
Fortunately, the latter was decided upon, and that resulted in a multi-year Generations Campaign to fund work on the aging vessel. To date, more than $23 million in public and private funds have been raised to save the aging battle wagon.
While North Carolina will never actually sail again, the point of the still ongoing repairs is to preserve the warship so that future generations can appreciate the sacrifices made by the “greatest generation,” and to highlight the industrial proficiency of the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
That is a fitting role that the warship, nicknamed “Showboat,” will hopefully fill for decades to come.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.