The battleship USS North Carolina is back in the water

US Navy battleship USS North Carolina
US Navy battleship USS North Carolina at sea off New York City, June 3, 1946.

  • 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

Battleship USS North Carolina on Cape Fear River North Carolina
USS North Carolina and the downtown area of Wilmington, North Carolina, along the Cape Fear River on February 26, 2016.

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

Navy battleship USS North Carolina
USS North Carolina, seen from the battleship’s bow, May 1941.

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.

Navy battleship USS North Carolina
USS North Carolina firing its main armament in 1944.

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.

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3 times the US military brought back ‘obsolete’ weapons to take on new enemies

USS New Jersey battleship navy
The USS New Jersey with all guns blazing.

  • The US military regularly sends old hardware to its storage depots and boneyards.
  • But the Pentagon has also brought back old gear and designs to counter new and emerging threats.
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1. Battleships

Once thought to be the cornerstone of naval power, the advent of naval aviation and the rise of the aircraft carrier in WWII was the beginning of the end for the large-gunned ships of the line.

Though battleships saw continuous combat in WWII and Korea, the US Navy was left without an active battleship upon the decommissioning of the USS Wisconsin in March 1958; the first time since 1895.

Most military enthusiasts are familiar with the Reagan administration’s 600-ship Navy and the reactivation of the battleships USS Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

USS New Jersey would be the first to fire her massive 16-inch guns at enemy targets again during the Lebanese Civil War from 1983-1984. USS Missouri and Wisconsin would return to combat in 1991 during the Gulf War. However, USS New Jersey was brought back into active service once before.

USS Wisconsin
USS Wisconsin firing its 16-inch guns during the Korean War.

Following the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the loss of US aircraft over Vietnam increased exponentially.

The planes that took part in the sustained aerial bombardment campaign were exceptionally vulnerable to sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air weapon systems provided to the North Vietnamese.

In an effort to alleviate these air losses while still delivering ordnance payloads, USS New Jersey was brought out of mothballs in April 1968 and modernized for active service in Southeast Asia. The only active battleship in the world, New Jersey joined the gun line off the Vietnamese coast on September 25.

Five days later, she fired her first shots in over 16 years during an engagement against PAVN targets near the DMZ at the 17th parallel. She would go on to fire 14,891 5-inch shells and 5,688 16-inch shells during the war in support of ARVN, US and even Korean troops.

2. M14 rifle

M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle
Troops with the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle.

An evolution of the famed M1 Garand of WWII and Korea, the M14 battle rifle became the standard-issue rifle for the US military in 1959.

Firing the 7.62 x 51 mm NATO round, the M14 was meant to streamline logistics efforts by replacing the M1 Garand, M1903 Springfield, M1917 Enfield, M1 carbine, M3 submachine gun, M1928/M1 Thompson submachine gun, and M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle.

While the M14 exhibited outstanding accuracy and stopping power in its semi-automatic setting, its full-power cartridge was deemed too powerful for the submachine gun role and its light weight made it difficult to control during automatic fire as a light machine gun.

m14
An infantry marksman provides security in the district of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 30, 2012.

Though the M14 was replaced by the M16 as the standard-issue rifle in 1968, it found a new role as a precision rifle platform. It served as the basis of the M21 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1968 and M25 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1991.

Though both weapon systems have been largely replaced by the M24 Sniper Weapon System, the M14 lives on as the Mk14 Enhanced Battle Rifle. Introduced in 2002, the Mk14 is a truer reincarnation of the M14.

Where the M21 and M25 were restricted to semi-automatic fire, designated as Sniper Weapon Systems and saw more restricted issuance as a result, the Mk14 sees the return of selective fire, the designation as a battle rifle for both designated marksman and close combat roles, and issuance by the Army to two riflemen per infantry platoon deploying to Afghanistan.

3. Guns on fighter planes

Air Force F-35 cannon gun
An F-35A’s 25 mm cannon on a strafing run during training at the Utah Test and Training range, August 13, 2018.

With the advent of radar-guided and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, like the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the new threat of high-altitude, long-range Soviet bombers, US air combat doctrine called for the elimination of gun armament on fighter-interceptor aircraft.

Though dedicated attack and fighter aircraft like the A-4 Skyhawk, A-7 Corsair II and the F-8 Crusader retained 20mm cannons for ground attack and close-range aerial combat, interceptors like the F-86D Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-4 Phantom II dispensed with any type of gun armament in favor of rockets and missiles.

The idea during the late ’50s and early ’60s was that these types of aircraft would engage in long-range combat without visual contact of their target and, even if they did get close enough to see the enemy that the new Sidewinder missile would be able to dispense with a hostile fighter with ease.

This idea proved to be fatal for pilots over the skies of Vietnam. For Phantom II pilots in particular, who escorted bomber flights over North Vietnam, the lack of a gun often left them without offensive options during a dogfight. Marine Corps general recalled, “Everyone in RF-4s wished we had a gun on the aircraft.”

As any “Top Gun” fan can tell you, the American air-to-air kill ratio in Korea was 12:1. According to the US Naval Institute, the Navy’s kill ratio in Vietnam was just 2.5:1. The drop in kill ratio was attributed to poor missile accuracy at just 10% and lack of dogfighting skills.

The latter resulted in the creation of TOPGUN while the former resulted in the addition of an external gun pod to the Phantom II. An internally mounted gun was incorporated on the later F-4E models.

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The hunt for Germany’s largest warship proved that U-boats were the Nazis’ best weapon

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
The German battleship Bismarck after its completion but before it received its camouflage paint.

  • Early in World War II, Nazi Germany used its navy to isolate Britain from resupply by sea.
  • Germany capital ships, like the battleship Bismarck, were an important part of that strategy.
  • But it was Bismarck’s destruction in May 1941 that solidified U-boats as Hitler’s weapon of choice.
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On the night of May 18, 1941, the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen steamed out of its base at Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland), followed five hours later by the Kriegsmarine’s crown jewel, the battleship Bismarck.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were on a mission to wreak havoc on British merchant shipping. German U-boats were already very effective at this, but Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, head of the Kriegsmarine, hoped to demonstrate to Hitler the value of Germany’s surface fleet in order to avoid future budget cuts.

What followed was one of the most intense naval searches in military history, the result of which convinced Hitler that U-boats, not capital ships, were the Kriegsmarine’s best weapons.

Capital ships for commerce raiding

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck off of Kiel, Germany, September 1940.

Britain was in a very desperate situation in May 1941. It had fended off the Luftwaffe’s relentless aerial onslaughts in the Battle of Britain but was still isolated and heavily reliant on supplies coming across the Atlantic.

The Kriegsmarine had been trying to block trans-Atlantic shipping routes since the war began, and its capital ships had played an important role in intercepting or sinking Allied shipping.

German surface ships also drew Royal Navy warships away from other duties, such as escorting convoys, and supported U-boats, which were then few in number.

Nazi Germany navy battleship Bismarck
Bismarck firing on a merchant ship in the North Atlantic in 1941.

Happy with earlier success in Operation Berlin, Raeder planned another commerce raid.

To maximize damage, the raid was to include Germany’s four best capital ships: battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were sister ships, and Bismarck and its sister ship, Tirpitz.

But Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by constant RAF attacks while being repaired in port in France, keeping them out of action for months. Tirpitz’s crew was also still being trained.

Prinz Eugen, not as well armed or armored as a battleship, was the only available ship capable of accompanying Bismarck. Not wanting to delay the operation any longer, German commanders ordered the ships into the Atlantic.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Nazi Germany navy Bismarck Prinz Eugen
Bismarck seen from Prinz Eugen in May 1941.

The mission, codenamed Operation Rheinübung, was led by Adm. Günther Lütjens, the commander of Operation Berlin.

Lütjens was ordered to focus primarily on merchant raiding and to avoid fighting British capital ships if possible. But Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were discovered by the Royal Navy, which attempted to intercept the ships as they sailed through Denmark Strait and into the Atlantic on May 24.

The British force consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which was widely considered the pride of the Royal Navy.

The British ships were no match for Bismarck, which was newer and better armored. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to fire full broadsides at the two British ships.

“When the big guns fired, the entire ship staggered,” Heinrich Kuhnt, a sailor on the Bismarck, recalled after the war. “It felt like it was bending. It was pushed sideways in the water. It was amazing.”

Minutes into the battle, one of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells hit one of Hood’s magazines. An enormous column of fire erupted from the battlecruiser, followed by a massive explosion that tore it in two.

“The ship broke into pieces,” Otto Schlenzka, a sailor on Prinz Eugen, recalled. “We were sure an explosion of that kind must have killed everybody.”

Hood went down with 1,415 sailors, all but three of its crew. Prince of Wales was also heavily damaged and had to withdraw. The Germans suffered no losses.

Bismarck’s end

HMS Ark Royal Swordfish
A flight of Swordfish torpedo bombers over British aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 1939.

Shocked by the violent destruction of the Hood, the Royal Navy committed nearly all of its available capital ships in the area to finding and destroying Bismarck.

Though it suffered no casualties in the battle, Bismarck received a number of hits that ruptured a fuel tank and caused flooding.

Lütjens, aware of the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority and of the danger of sailing a damaged warship, terminated the operation.

Prinz Eugen was ordered to continue commerce raiding on its own while the Bismarck headed for Nazi-occupied France.

Dorsetshire Bismarck survivors
Survivors from the Bismarck are pulled aboard HMS Dorsetshire, May 27, 1941.

Bismarck briefly evaded its pursuers, but a British reconnaissance aircraft, flown by a US Navy pilot, found it on May 26.

Subsequent torpedo attacks from Swordfish carrier planes disabled Bismarck’s rudder, forcing it into a continuous turn.

With the Royal Navy closing in, Lütjens sent a final message to Berlin: “Ship unmaneuverable. We shall fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.”

On May 27, two British battleships and two heavy cruisers attacked Bismarck. They fired over 2,800 shells in a little less than two hours, hitting the German battleship some 400 times. Bismarck was left dead in the water.

The Germans detonated scuttling charges to sink the ship, while British heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired torpedoes to finish it off. Only 115 of Bismarck’s 2,221-man crew survived.

U-boat superiority

Nazi Germany navy U-boat submarine
A German U-boats, its crew on the deck and officers in the conning tower, arrives in Kiel, November 10, 1939.

Operation Rheinübung was a complete failure. Not only had the pride of the Kriegsmarine been sunk with nearly all hands, Prinz Eugen was unable to sink any merchant ships, meaning the primary objective was never achieved.

In the following weeks, the Royal Navy set about destroying the network German ships that refueled, resupplied, and rearmed German capital ships in the Atlantic. The result was the Kriegsmarine’s almost complete reliance on U-boats during the rest of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In the end, the U-boats were the Kriegsmarine’s most effective weapons. From September to December 1939, they sank 110 Allied vessels, while German capital ships only sank about a dozen.

Between July and October 1940, a period known as the “first happy time,” by German submariners, U-boats sank nearly 300 ships carrying over a million tons of cargo.

Between January and August 1942, the “second happy time,” U-boats sank another 600 ships carrying 3 million tons of cargo.

Hitler never ordered his capital ships into the Atlantic again, sending them to Norway or the Baltic instead. The Germans ramped up production of U-boats, which were easier to build than capital ships, and thousands of Allied ships were sunk before the war’s end in 1945.

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