Sixty years ago, on Oct. 2, 1961, thousands of onlookers came out to the Wilmington, North Carolina waterfront on the Cape Fear River to see the arrival of the state’s namesake World War II battleship. USS North Carolina (BB-55) wasn’t making a port visit to the city, which at the time was essentially on a downward trek after the closure of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company after the end of the war.
Instead, the mighty battle wagon, which was the lead vessel of a new class of “fast battleships” constructed just before the Second World War under terms imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty, was arriving at her new home. The warship that had proved her worth during the conflict had survived many close calls and near misses, including being hit by a Japanese torpedo. The Japanese had claimed six times that the battleship had been sunk, yet North Carolina continued to fight on.
And while other majestic warships that helped ensure an Allied victory met an ignominious end as they were broken up and sold for scrap, BB-55 was saved and preserved as a museum ship and memorable to the brave sailors of the “Greatest Generation.” Since April 1962 the warship 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.
For the past 60 years, the 728-foot decommissioned vessel has been a vital part of the downtown Wilmington skyline. However, as the city was transformed and today is a hub in the American film-industry, the gallant warship has suffered. The elements have proven to be a far more vicious enemy than even the Imperial Japanese Navy, but the efforts to save and preserve the ship have continued.
It didn’t always look good for the future of the North Carolina however. While Operation Ship Shape, a donation drive to secure funds was launched in 1998, the damage was so great that in 2009, the United States Navy issued two directives: either restore or scrap the ship. The former was decided upon and that resulted in a multi-year Generations Campaign – which has raised $23 million in public and private funds.
According to locals, it would be hard to imagine the modern Wilmington waterfront without the warship. She remains the area’s number one tourist attraction apart from the beach, while the battleship is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of eastern North Carolina.
Efforts are ongoing and while the hull of the vessel has been repaired and perhaps even improved while retaining the visual appearance of the original construction; engineers are continuing to address the threats from the environment and climate change. Unlike other historic attractions – notably the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse – that have been moved to deal with encroaching water, this isn’t possible with the warship.
“The Battleship will never be moved. People don’t realize how big it is,” explained U.S. Navy Cpt. Terry Bragg (Retired), executive director of the Battleship N.C.
While it is a ship, it couldn’t actually sail under the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, which wasn’t built until 1967, after the museum ship was already in place. It is simply home.
“We have a suitable site, even though the Cape Fear River is not the Cape Fear River of 60 years ago,” Bragg told The Star News Online.
Instead, the solution has been to make the North Carolina sustainable well into the future via a project dubbed “Living with Water.” The first phase included constructing wetlands or a “living shoreline” that can better handle the effects of a changing climate. And while developers have eyed the waterfront for future projects, the fact that the battleship was named a National Historic Landmark in 1986 affords it certain protections.
For now, the efforts to restore and maintain the ship continue, and Bragg and the museum remain committed to ensuring the warship that the Japanese couldn’t sink won’t lose its fight to the elements anytime soon.
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.