Here in the U.S., we have such a rich military history. We are so fortunate to have many military museums across the country that document history while preserving military artifacts. I recently toured the Battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64), which sits in the harbor of Norfolk, VA and is part of the fantastic Nauticus maritime museum. This massive ship and its various crews served in three wars and was an absolute mechanical engineering marvel for its time. It was a very humbling experience to be on the battleship. I encourage you to take the time to visit the USS Wisconsin or one of its sister Iowa class battleships in your travels.
The USS Wisconsin is one of four Iowa class battleships that were built during World War II. Six battleships of this size and design were ordered by the U.S. Navy to be built during World War II, but luckily the war ended before the last two were completed.
All four of the Iowa class battleships are decommissioned by the Navy and are open to the public for tours. Here are their locations and links to learn more:
*USS Iowa (BB-61) is in Los Angeles, CA at the Battleship Iowa Museum and Pacific Battleship Center.
*USS New Jersey (BB-62) is in Camden, NJ, across the river from Philadelphia, at the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial.
*USS Missouri (BB-63) is in Pearl Harbor, HI at the Battleship Missouri Memorial.
*USS Wisconsin (BB-64) is in Norfolk, VA at the Nauticus Featuring the Battleship Wisconsin.
The USS Illinois and USS Kentucky were the other two Iowa class battleships that were begun but never completed due to the end of World War II. Their hulls were later scrapped in 1958.
History of the USS Wisconsin and Sister Iowa Class Battleships
So what was the big deal about the Iowa class battleships, including the USS Wisconsin?
According to Randall S. Shoker, who wrote the museum guidebook for the USS Wisconsin, by late 1937, the U.S. Navy caught wind that the Imperial Japanese Navy was building three super battleships. These battleships were estimated to be larger and more powerful than any ship in the US Navy fleet or even scheduled to be built.
Per the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936, the U.S, France and Great Britain requested that Japan not build any military ships over 35,000 tons. It became evident that the Imperial Japanese government was disregarding the treaty. As a result, the U.S. Navy went to work developing plans and designs for the 45,000 ton, 16-inch gun Iowa class battleships.
The main purpose of the Iowa class battleships, including the USS Wisconsin, was to provide escort and protection to the aircraft carriers and smaller ships that made up the U.S. Navy presence in the Pacific Theater during World War II. As you step on board the USS Wisconsin or one of its sister ships, you will quickly realize these battleships were not to be messed with! These ships are massive, as are the guns gracing its deck. Even the anchors and anchor lines are huge.
What is really interesting about the USS Wisconsin, was that it was commissioned for World War II, then decommissioned, reactivated for the Korean War, decommissioned again, then reactivated for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, with its final decommissioning in 2006. The strength of the ship and its immense firing power from its 16-inch guns, were still useful almost 30 years later after the ship was built. We had a friend who served on the USS Wisconsin in Operation Desert Storm who said there was nothing like those huge guns going off! The guns have a 23 nautical mile range.
Touring the USS Wisconsin and Sister Ships
Each of the battleships offers self-guided tours as well as VIP scheduled tours. I highly recommend taking at least one of the VIP scheduled tours. They are totally worth the extra cost. Often led by retired US Navy Veterans, you will learn a ton not only about the ship but also about how people lived and worked on the ship. And the veterans are full of stories from their own naval experiences. They also share stories from people who served on the ship and who have come back as civilians to share their own memories.
On the USS Wisconsin, I toured the main sections of the battleship first. Most people do this by following the self-guided ship map and signs. I was fortunate to be part of a private tour group and event fundraiser, which inspired me to come back to do additional tours. You can wander around the main deck, and then go below to see everything from the ship’s chapel and dental clinic, to the enlisted men’s living quarters, offices, machine shop and mess hall.
Throughout the ship, you will see military posters and bits of artwork graffiti adorning the walls created by various sailors throughout the years. Wandering around the ship really gives you an idea of how big the USS Wisconsin is, yet how cramped it must have been when operating with a full crew.
Guided Command and Control Tour
Next, I took the VIP Guided Command and Control tour. This included climbing up and down four stories of the ship on original, really narrow metal ladders. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes. You will also be walking over grates, climbing through hatches and trying not to bump into things. Your legs may or may not forgive you after this ship-wide adventure!
The tour takes you through officer quarters, including that of the Admiral and Captain, which are interesting to compare to the cramped quarters of the enlisted men. You will be impressed by the Combat Engagement Center. This is where the action of the ship was plotted, planned and acted upon. While the room is filled with part World War II and Korean War components, the space was also updated with modern equipment such as computers and radar in the mid-1980s. You will listen to an impressive “live” combat situation while parts of the room light up to help you understand who makes decisions when and how an operation would proceed.
Next, you will then be taken up to the bridge and conning tower, where there is an amazing view over the front of the ship. The flag bridge was where the captain often spent his time. Then the pilot tower sits on the deck above the flag bridge. I also enjoyed seeing the central part of the pilot tower, known as the armored conning tower. The conning tower is the chamber from which the ship was actually steered. Three sailors were literally locked into the room for the duration of their shifts. The room was circular and reinforced by over 17 inches of steel. The idea was that the room could withstand bomb impacts from enemy fire, so the sailors could keep navigating the ship regardless of what else was happening elsewhere on the ship.
Finally, the tour concludes with a visit to the areas where Operation Desert Storm era Tomahawk missiles once inhabited the ship. The Wisconsin held eight box launchers on one of its upper decks. These boxes contained a total of 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles. These missiles worked on a precision system and could hit a target up to 675 miles away. Some of the box launchers and the tracks they worked on are still intact on the ship.
Guided Engine Room Tour
The next tour I took was into the bowels of the USS Wisconsin on the Guided Engine Room Tour. I know very little about electrical and mechanics, but all I could think during this tour, was Wow! What an amazing feat of engineering. The Iowa class battleships were built to be sleek and fast. The ships operated on steam and could cruise through the water at up to 33 knots. They also held so much gasoline (over 2.5 million gallons of fuel) that they could refuel smaller ships in the Navy fleet while at sea. This was a huge advantage at the time.
The USS Wisconsin and other Iowa class battleships were fast because they were operated by 4 identical competing boiler systems. Each fire room contained 2 oil-burning boilers, a total of 8. The boilers were manually managed, creating steam to power the ship. The ship was then managed and driven forward by 4 massive propellers.
Our guide shared a 3-D video with us in one of the fire rooms, where a sailor takes you through the process he uses to light the boiler and then monitor its heat and steam production. Depending on commands from other parts of the ship, such as how fast to sail, sailors in the engine rooms would manually adjust the boilers and steam production. If it was “Full sail ahead!” our guide said the four-engine room teams would often compete with each other to see how fast and accurately they could get their part of the ship operating.
The Engine Room tour was fascinating. Once again, get ready to traipse all over the ship, mostly climbing to the lower decks. Everywhere you turn there are electrical lines, pipes, valves, and gears. You will wander through “Broadway” the main corridors that run the length of the ship on both sides.
Also, you will visit the Machine Shop, where any valve or part for the ship that breaks could be recreated onsite. Then, you will then scoot down some very steep ladders and across grates to see the boilers, walls of fire room gauges, turbo generators, steam turbines and the propeller shafts. Again, you will have that feeling like you are going to bump your head on beams or back into gauges or pipes. It is a true reality check when you think that during its lifetime, up to 2,800 men lived and worked on the USS Wisconsin at any given time!
While someone who studied engineering or electricity will really enjoy the details of what they are looking at, the USS Wisconsin Engine Room tour is still very eye-opening. The equipment to run the Iowa class ships was massive! You walk away imagining how hard (and hot!) the work was for sailors to run these ships 24/7. And I am thoroughly amazed that the USS Wisconsin was used in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While it had many upgrades in its radar, missile defense and electronic systems up top, the reality was the manual engine operations propelling the boat were much the same as they were in World War II and the Korean War.
I encourage you to visit the USS Wisconsin at the Nauticus museum in Norfolk, VA and its sister Iowa class battleships in New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. As one middle school student from Ontario, Canada who I happened to meet while standing at the bow of the boat looking back at the whole of the ship, exclaimed, “This is AWESOME!” I had to laugh at his enthusiasm, (He’s a future engineer, for sure!), but also had to agree setting foot on the USS Wisconsin is an impressive experience.
Love military history? You may also like this travel review on the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA.