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Wartime memories

The USS Alabama (BB-60), moored on the shores of Mobile Bay, one of the state’s most popular tourists destinations. Photo by Emmett Burnett
The USS Alabama (BB-60), moored on the shores of Mobile Bay, one of the state’s most popular tourists destinations. Photo by Emmett Burnett

WWII vets return to USS Alabama

By Emmett Burnett

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USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park employees have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When some former crew members board the ship, they stand straight, strong, and stride the gangway with a spring in their step. Ninety-year-old veterans become 20-year-old sailors again, men like Fred Francis.

“People don’t realize how big it is,” beams the 1943-1945 Seaman First Class, speaking aboard the ship he once shot Japanese aircraft from. “When I first saw the Alabama, I thought it was massive. The biggest thing I’d ever seen.”

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During World War II, Francis worked an airplane catapult in his service on the ship now moored on the shores of Mobile Bay. His team catapulted American airplanes off the ship and into the sky. “You had to do it just right or the pilot would break his neck,” he says.

Francis and a dozen-plus former World War II shipmates were in Mobile earlier this year, for their annual reunion and observing the 50th anniversary of the USS Alabama’s opening in Mobile. Today it is one of the state’s leading tourist destinations. But when William Hahn called it home, tourism was far from mind.

Hahn, now 91 and living in Maryland, was a machine gunner. “If enemy planes got past the smaller guns, it was our turn,” he recalls. “I shot a few planes, can’t tell you how many, but I did. It was our job. We did what we had to do.”

Florida’s Frank Radulski was the ship’s radar operator in 1946. “Back then radar and electronics filled entire rooms on ship!” the Florida retiree recalls. “Today that same technology is on that thing.” He laughs, and points at an iPhone.

Daniel Glass was one of the youngsters at the crewmate’s reunion. He is only 87. But he recalls his first time onboard, at age 17. “In 1945 wartime, the walk wasn’t this leisurely,” he smiles. “We were in a hurry, to learn our jobs, load the ship, and set a course to sea.”

The ship was nicknamed, ‘The Lucky A.’ But if the men who served on it hear you say that, you may get your feelings hurt. “They prefer ‘The Mighty A,’ says the Alabama’s curator, Shea McLean. “Lucky” implies it dodged combat, which is completely false.

More than a dozen men who once served aboard the USS Alabama attended their annual reunion at the ship in Mobile, in April, 2015. Photo by Emmett Burnett
More than a dozen men who once served aboard the USS Alabama attended their annual reunion at the ship in Mobile, in April, 2015. Photo by Emmett Burnett

This ship received 9 battle stars. It shot down 22 Japanese enemy combatants. You don’t do that by luck. You do it by being well trained and so good at your job, the enemy was blown from the sky before given any strike opportunity. However, there were fatalities and injuries onboard, associated indirectly with the heat of battle.

The 12-story tall floating fortress is 680 feet from stem to stern, half as long as the Empire State Building is tall. At any given time of service, more than 2,500 were on board. It was a battleship first. But it was also a seaworthy city.

Crew members receiving haircuts at the barbershop.
Crew members receiving haircuts at the barbershop.

It had barber shops, a jail, butchers, cooks, dry cleaners, a full orchestra, post office, and an outdoor open-air movie theater. A fully equipped medical facility included an operating room, capable of performing major surgeries. The Alabama fielded a league championship baseball team. Having crewmate and All-American Cleveland Indians’ Bob Feller as pitcher probably didn’t hurt.

By 1940s standards, the ship’s population was larger than many towns in the state that bore its name. It was a man’s world (no women allowed). Many men started as teenagers and grew up fast.

One could join the Navy at age 17 with parents’ permission. Or you could falsify documents like the Alabama’s 15-year old sailors did.

Gambling was forbidden on ship – in theory. “There’s a story of men playing cards,” says McLean. “They stationed a lookout to warn of approaching officers.”

But the game was so good, the lookout forsook his post to watch the gamblers, until an ominous human shadow cast over the forbidden proceedings. It was the ship’s chaplain.

Frozen in terror, guilty crewmen looked up at the military minister, and braced for time in the brig. After a stern pause, the chaplain, reached down, scooped up the money, stuffed it in his shirt pocket, and said, “Boys, let’s just consider this a donation to the church.” And walked away.

But regardless of calling, social status, race, or creed, when the “Battle Stations!” alarm blared over loudspeakers, you became a sailor. Every man had a job. You either shot the enemy or assisted those who did. They also battled the weather.

“The Alabama experienced at least two huge typhoons,” notes McLean. “The ship was top heavy and bobbed in rough seas like a cork.” There are reports of hurricanes, when the ship listed/swayed in great waves so powerful that men left footprints – on the walls.

Of the several thousand total who served aboard the USS Alabama, miraculously, most returned safely. About 600 are still with us. Soon they, too, will be a memory.

“These men walked away from a safe lifestyle and put themselves in harm’s way,” says Battleship Memorial Park Executive Director, Bill Tunnell. “I never forget that. The freedoms we cherish were made possible in part by the men who served on this ship.”