So many ‘historic tourist attractions’ are recreations of some lost event from the past, at best someone’s idea of how things used to be and at worst a caricature of how someone would like it to have been.
But the USS Battleship Alabama in Mobile, Alabama (www.ussalabama.com) is none of these. It is a real and tangible link with the past; virtually unchanged since 1945, you can almost hear the echoes of past inhabitants and sense the life that coursed through the ship.
We can see the USS Alabama long before reaching it, just sitting there looking vast and formidable; there’s no hype, no phoney sailor guides, no modern sponsorship, no games, its World War II incarnate. Although dwarfed by today’s aircraft carriers at 680 foot long, 108 foot wide and weighing 42,500 tons, fully loaded, it was formidable in its day.
Walking up the gangplank the intimidating bulk puts you in your place. It’s not simply a boat, it’s a floating town and still looks ready for business. Climbing down the metal steps into the bowels of the ship was an eerie experience, each footstep echoing through the deserted ship. Every deck told a different story, empty room after empty cabin after empty workshop and each one a reminder of the men who lived and served there.
Shipboard life is evident everywhere, huge kitchens with fold away tables and chairs, even a Soda Fountain that could serve 100 gallons of ice cream a day. No space is wasted on a warship, dining rooms double as recreation and meeting rooms and the sleeping quarters house dozens of canvas bunks dangling by chains from the ceiling, stacked three and four high, row after row.
Home to 2,500 men, the USS Alabama was as large as the hometown many of its crew came from. In fact it was run like a small town, with a Chief of Police (Chief Master of Arms), a church with minister, post office, fire station, hospital, dentist and prison (the brig). All the essential facilities are there, workshops, carpenters, laundry, cobblers, butchers, bakers, in fact everything necessary for feeding, servicing and maintaining a small town.
The 75 year old technology seems cumbersome by today’s standards but its mechanical complexity and formidable firepower is still impressive. The Alabama saw active service in the North Sea assisting the British Fleet escorting convoys to Russia and extensively throughout the Pacific, eventually steaming into Tokyo Bay in July 1945.
Whilst sitting in the dining area another visitor told me his grandfather served on the Alabama, during WWII. “He never would talk much about what he saw and experienced, I think it was just too painful. I am so thankful that the USS Alabama has been preserved; it has allowed us a glimpse a part of his life, that none of us knew anything about”.
There are many other relics of World War II in this ‘Memorial Park’ but the USS Alabama is the star, it is truly a ghost ship, exactly as it was in 1945, except everyone has gone.