Tuesday, May 09, 2023

This Sucker Is Huge | Touring the Battleship Wisconsin

After a tasty, if not gut busting meal at Sushi King, we decided to stretch our legs and walk to the nearby waterfront. As we turned the corner, we found ourselves face to face with the USS Wisconsin. The Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships ever built, was a sight to see.

While I've been aboard a number of large Navy vessels, Michael and the kids have not. On impulse, we couldn't resist going aboard to see what this behemoth was all about.

The Wisconsin is attached to the Nauticus Museum. We zipped through the exhibits to get to the ship, stopping only to peer through the very cool WWII era periscope they have mounted for use.

Once on the ship, we toured the main deck and two decks above. We marveled at how massive everything was, from the 100lb chain links, to a deck that went on and on. The Wisconsin served in three distinct eras and conflicts. The ship was crafted for use in WWII, it then served in Korea and had a final tour of duty in the Gulf War. Imagine how the world changed from 1944 to 1991; the Battleship Wisconsin was like, no worries, I've still got this.

On an upper deck we came across the perfect encapsulation of these three time periods. Within a few yards of each other, you could operate an old school signal light, dial a rotary phone and marvel at a Tomahawk missile battery. Perhaps not surprisingly, the kids were most fascinated by the rotary phone. Having just finished a book on the Gulf War, it was impressive to be standing next to the hardware that kicked off that conflict.

After exploring the outside of the ship, we made our way inside and to the decks below. We saw the usual sights on ships like this: the impressive quarters for senior officers, the impossibly cramped quarters for the enlisted men (hello, 16 feet of storage space!), the various mess halls, a machine shop, surgical and dentist suites and more. I've seen all this before, but I continue to be amazed that we can create a floating city that operates nearly independently for months at a time.

Below deck, the sheer size of the vessel continued to impress. To my surprise, the Wisconsin is actually longer than the USS Intrepid, a friggin Aircraft Carrier. While we could only go two decks down into the ship, they did have a portal open to view below. Again, the ship just seemed to go on forever. For additional context, here's a photo of the Wisconsin next to the USS Antietam, a WWII aircraft carrier. This beast is *huge*.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the ship, however, was a seemingly random room we stepped into below deck. As we tried to figure out what we were looking at, I saw a plaque on a chunky dial and knob filled machine that read: Star Shell Computer. Hmmm, I thought, the Star Shell Computer company, I'll have to look them up and see what they're all about. A moment later, I realized I was parsing that text wrong: this wasn't the name of a company, I was staring at the "computer" used to launch the type of ordinance used to light up the battlefield, aka a star shell.

Eventually we figured out that we were in a gun plotting room and were surrounded by the computers used to aim and fire the huge guns on deck. These computers are unlike any we interact with today: they appear to be purely mechanical. Instead of electronics and software, these devices compute by use of gears and cams.

To find a mechanical computer on a WWII era vessel makes a lot of sense; in 1944 it would have been cutting edge tech. Heck, in the 1940's, the term 'computer' could easily refer to a person's job title. What's mind blowing is that according to this video, mechanical firing computers had a life well past the 40's. There's no reason to believe that sailors of the 1990's used any other technology to align and fire the guns aboard the Wisconsin. This may be the ultimate example of the adage if ain't broke, don't fix it.

At 4:45pm, the ship intercom came to life and informed us that the museum was closing in 15 minutes. We'd have to stop exploring, and make our way through the maze of corridors back to the surface.

What a treat it was to tour the USS Wisconsin and to share the experience with those who've never been aboard such a monstrosity. I can't recommend this highly enough.

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