Beaming in his sailor’s white uniform and cap Monday evening, Dale States was applauded by 1,000 guests at a Memorial Day service on the deck of the USS North Carolina – the deck he scrubbed as a Navy seaman in World War II.
“It was a brand-new ship the day I came aboard, April 23, 1941,” said States, 91, who lives in Colorado. “It’s a beautiful day today, an honor to be here.”
North Carolina’s namesake vessel was decommissioned in 1947 after serving in the Pacific as the most-decorated battleship of the war. It began its second life in 1961, moored across the Cape Fear River from the federal courthouse in Wilmington’s historic downtown, as a floating museum and memorial for more than 10,000 North Carolinians who died in World War II.
“Memorial Day is a day of remembrance,” U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, told the audience of tourists and veterans. “It’s not the start of summer. It’s not the day the pools open. It’s a day to remember the sacrifices of so many.”
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Veterans of American wars including Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan came to remember comrades they had lost and also to reflect on the military’s role in American history.
“I think about the lives that were given, about all our soldiers – and when you really look at it, you go from the Revolutionary War to today,” said Mike Allen, 65, of Wilmington, a retired Army command sergeant major. His father fought at Okinawa as a Marine, and his niece is an Army colonel.
“It’s a big family. It doesn’t matter what branch of service it is,” Allen said. “We all support each other. When one hurts, we all hurt. And our flag still stands for something. Much blood has been shed for it.
“Memorial Day is a day for me to reflect. One of those calm, peaceful days to come down here and get on the deck of this ship, which you know has such a great history and so many great men who served on it,” Allen said.
Before the ceremony, families of tourists and veterans scurried below decks to see a barbershop that served four sailors at a time, and four engine rooms that powered four propellers more than 15 feet across. The sleeping quarters were crammed with racks – sailors’ bunks – stacked four deep.
Signs everywhere explained how everything worked and how everyone worked together. Sixteen-inch guns in three turrets were used to pound enemy ships and bombard shorelines from as much as 21 miles away. Each turret was manned by three officers and 177 enlisted men.
Nine flags on the side of the ship symbolized nine Japanese-held island that were bombarded by the USS North Carolina, and another 24 flags marked the Japanese airplanes shot down in battle.
Don Poppe, 68, a Vietnam war veteran, parked his wheelchair next to the rail and gazed out over a marsh.
“I’m thinking about all the guys that got their butts blowed up,” said Poppe, of Port Clinton, Ohio. “Especially Pearl Harbor. We had our pants down on that one.”
Monday marked the ship’s 50th observance of Memorial Day. The ceremony ended with a red-and-white floral wreath tossed from the deck onto the water.
Sitting with his wife, leaning on his walking stick and adjusting his hearing aids, States said he was glad he could return to the ship where he had served in World War II.
“I think of the ones, my friends, that are mostly gone. I have stood and saluted at their funerals,” States said. “It’s a beautiful day, but there are getting to be so few of us left.”
Hull repairs and a new visitor center
Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed $1.4 billion bond issue for state infrastructure improvements will include $15 million for a new visitor center at the Battleship North Carolina, if the legislature agrees.
Meanwhile, a fundraising “Generations Campaign” was launched this year to raise $17 million for repairs to the ship’s rusting hull, and to build an education and nature trail on Eagles Island nearby.
The ship’s last big dry-dock repair job was in 1952. Instead of towing the ship to a dry dock, a coffer dam will be built around it so the water can be removed.
The General Assembly is expected to kick in $3 million, and another $8 million has been raised so far. To donate to the Generations Campaign, click the “Donate” button at battleshipnc.com or text the word “Battleship” to 41444.