Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: NC lawmakers poised to help save World War II memorial battleship

The USS North Carolina battleship near Wilmington is the state’s memorial to those who died in World War II.
The USS North Carolina battleship near Wilmington is the state’s memorial to those who died in World War II. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The USS North Carolina battleship is more than a museum and tourist attraction near downtown Wilmington.

The ship is moored, most of all, as a memorial. State law says it is to permanently “perpetuate the memory of North Carolinians who gave their lives in the course of World War II and in the events in which the battleship was a participant.”

More than 10,000 North Carolinians died in the war. As for the ship, its wartime “events” were many – 15 major Pacific naval offensives in all, making it the most-decorated battleship of World War II. The USS North Carolina helped save the carrier Enterprise from Japanese bombers in August 1942. Eventually, at war’s end, the ship anchored in Tokyo Bay.

Ten members of its crew were killed in action.

The ship was saved from the scrapyard in the 1960s after a fundraising campaign across all of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The “Save Our Ship” campaign was conceived as a county-by-county effort by Hugh Morton, a one-time aide to Gov. Luther Hodges who is better known as a photographer and developer of Grandfather Mountain.

When Terry Sanford took office as governor, he extended the campaign to the schools, with a free admission ticket going to every child who donated a dime.

The nickels and dimes added up to about $330,000 then – the equivalent of about $2.6 million today.

The battleship proudly survived on ticket sales and private donations through the 1990s. In the late ’90s, the state gave $1.5 million toward repairs, and more since.

Nickels and dimes won’t keep the ship afloat anymore. Its hull is deteriorating and significant repairs are needed. The hull is described as “wafer” thin in some places.

A major, $17 million campaign is underway, with large pledges already from the State Employees’ Credit Union, Duke Energy, BB&T, Wells Fargo and more.

Add state lawmakers to the list.

The state House last week adopted a budget that includes $3 million for the preservation and repairs. The Senate is expected to agree.

Capt. Terry Bragg, the executive director of the commission that oversees the battleship, told Dome that the money is helpful and the fundraising will continue until met.

“We have a mission and we are going to keep fundraising until we meet our mission, which is to repair the hull of the battleship North Carolina for the next generation,” he said. “The memorial and the message is just too important to North Carolina.”

On Monday, before sundown, visitors and dignitaries will fill the ship’s deck and fantail in a solemn ceremony to honor the dead.

It will be the 50th time people have gathered on the ship on Memorial Day to remember those who died in service to the United States.

About 200 or so of the men who served on the ship are still living. Some of them will be there, too.

“There are not many examples where the home state hosts the ship and it is their memorial. It’s really quite a rarity,” Bragg said. “We happen to be blessed. She is the state’s memorial.”

J. Andrew Curliss

Saving the ship

State lawmakers are poised to add $3 million to an ongoing $17 million campaign to repair the hull of the USS North Carolina. About $11 million has been raised so far. The effort is in a “public” phase of what it calls the Generations Campaign. Donors can give by texting the word “Battleship” to 41444; visiting battleshipnc.com and clicking the “donate” button; mailing a check; or visiting the battleship. Wilmington-area McDonald’s will donate 50 cents for every Big Mac sold this weekend.

The state’s memorial

On Memorial Day, at 5:45 p.m., people of all generations from across the state are invited to gather on the deck of the battleship to pay their respects. The ceremony is free and includes patriotic songs.

Burr to speak

From expected remarks by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr on Memorial Day: “The mighty USS North Carolina exemplifies America’s commitment to victory in World War II. In a brief three-year span from keel laying to commissioning, this ship was a feat of engineering prowess. It’s hard to fathom today that we could build such a complex piece of machinery in such a brief time.

“But it’s easy to understand when you realize the USS North Carolina epitomizes how that generation viewed solutions to problems and relentlessly applied human brains and brawn to the task. I think we need to harness more of our unparalleled intellectual power and blend it with some of that 1940s urgency today.”

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