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USS Alabama ready for 75th anniversary celebration

The Battleship during wartime. PHOTO COURTESY USS Alabama Archives
The original ship’s crew, at the 1942 christening.
PHOTO COURTESY USS Alabama Archives

By Emmett Burnett

It seems like yesterday, or maybe not. But in 1942, teenagers danced to the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a World War was under way, and a proud naval vessel took to sea. The war ended and so did Glenn Miller, but the naval vessel is still here, still proud, about to celebrate 75 years, and you’re invited.

On Aug. 12, USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park will observe the 75th Anniversary of the commissioning of its iconic ship. Details are being finalized at press time. But currently, the day starts with an 11 a.m. commemoration service in the Aircraft Pavilion. It follows with literally all hands on deck.

 

Henrietta McCormick Hill, wife of U.S. Senator from Alabama J. Lister Hill, christens the USS Alabama in a 1942 ceremony held at Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, VA.
PHOTO COURTESY USS Alabama Archives

Free admission, historical re-enactments by USS Living History Crew, Big Band concerts, and return visits from former crewmen will rule the day. “I liken the Living History Crew’s re-enactment of ship life to demonstrations at Colonial Williamsburg,” says Shea McClean, Battleship Alabama curator. “History becomes real. The interaction is amazing.”

Interaction with those who were there is amazing too. “We won’t know exactly how many former crewmembers will attend,” adds Rhonda Davis, the ship’s director of sales and marketing. “But some have already expressed interest and intent to be here.”

And as for us landlubbers: “If you have not seen the Battleship in a long time, or perhaps only been aboard once, this is a great opportunity to re-visit,” says McLean. “Some people are under the impression. ‘If you’ve already seen it, what’s changed?’” Plenty.

The Battleship during wartime.
PHOTO COURTESY USS Alabama Archives

The Battleship’s upgrades since your last visit include modernized facilities, interactive kiosks, and newly restored artifact exhibits from two World Wars. More are coming. Just in time for the anniversary – when a 680-foot fighting vessel was pronounced “battle ready.”

Shea notes that for many, “The Battleship and our relationship to it is like New Yorkers who have never been to Statue of Liberty. But unlike ‘Lady Liberty,’ we are continuously changing and rotating exhibits.”

The ship has shifted from tourist attraction to a restored-to-original-condition museum on water, which required tremendous research.

The effort is justified. “It is a joy being here,” notes Battleship Park’s Executive Director Janet Cobb. “This is the best job in the world.” And emphasizing inclusion, she adds, “We all made it happen.” The journey was quite a trip.

 

Champagne bottle used to christen the ship in 1942. Photo by Emmett Burnett

On Feb. 16, 1942, “The Mighty A” launched from the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Va. It was commissioned the following Aug. 16. During christening, Henrietta McCormick Hill, wife of the U.S. Senator from Alabama J. Lister Hill, broke a bottle of champagne over the ship’s bow. The bottle shards are intact and encased in the original braid, displayed onboard ship.

In war, the ship earned 9 Battle Stars, led the American Fleet into Tokyo Bay, and earned the name “Heroine of the Pacific.” In retirement it earned the miracle of survival. “Most other ships of that era are no longer with us,” Cobb says. “Most were scrapped.”

But not the Alabama. It is still with us, one of very few. Many reading this story are the reason why.

In the early 1960s Alabama residents formed the USS Battleship Commission to raise funds to save the maritime masterpiece from the scrapyard. Donations included over $100,000 from school children in nickel and dime donations. In return, child benefactors were given tickets for free admission. Over a half-century later, Battleship Park still validates those very tickets from 1960s grade school scholars.

“We stamp their cards and give it back to the guests for souvenirs,” Davis says.

In 1964 the ship was awarded to Alabama on June 16, turned over to the State on July 7, and towed from Seattle into Mobile Bay on Sept.14. Battleship Park opened Jan. 9, 1965.

And it all started 75 years ago. Speaking at the Norfolk, Va., Navy Yard launch ceremony, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said, “As Alabama slides down the ways today, she carries with her a great name and a great tradition. We cannot doubt that before many months have passed she will have had her first taste of battle. The Navy welcomes her as a new queen among her peers.”

USS Battleship Alabama, today. Photo by Emmett Burnett

Today, pointing out the galley entrance, surrounded by 44,000 tons of metal and very large guns, Cobb notes, “Our vision is to remind the people of Alabama, they brought it home. It is not a Mobile thing. It is not a Gulf Coast thing. It is a product of a statewide effort to save a namesake ship.”

Her words about the “namesake ship” echoed remarks made by Navy Secretary Knox, 75 years earlier: “In the future, as in the past, may the name Alabama ever stand for fighting spirit and devotion to cause.”

The name stands and so does the ship. Happy birthday, USS Alabama. Welcome aboard.ν