Guns 'n' glory

Wide view of USS Wisconsin next to Nauticus naval museum in Norfolk, Va. (Sun Media/Ian Robertson)

Wide view of USS Wisconsin next to Nauticus naval museum in Norfolk, Va. (Sun Media/Ian Robertson)

IAN ROBERTSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:52 PM ET

NORFOLK, Va. -- In this city famous for history and the U.S. Navy yards, one ship stands out -- in more ways than one.

Measuring 270 metres and almost as long as three football fields, the best way to start appreciating the USS Wisconsin is to stand on the boardwalk dock facing the bow. Then look up. Way up.

Built for $110 million, the mothballed 45,000-tonne behemoth launched at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on Dec. 7, 1943, is not just a museum piece.

In case of war -- or a faraway conflict deemed to need such a large gun platform -- the 65-year-old battleship last called back into action during the 1990-91 Gulf War has been only temporarily docked, by order of the U.S. Congress.

It was one of four "Iowa class" battleships built during World War II.

Two others exist, but retired dentist Dr. Eugene Kanter said his ship is the only one still shipshape enough to be reactivated. "It's the largest artifact of the navy's," said Kanter, a guide who served on board in 1956-57.

USS Wisconsin is operated beside the Hampton Roads Naval Museum at Nauticus, The National Maritime Center.

Walking the teak-topped steel deck above a triple hull designed to withstand deep penetration from enemy shells, visitors are overshadowed by turrets of nine 16-inch -- 406 millimetre -- 50-calibre heavy naval guns. They can spit a 1,200-kilo armour-piercing shell 39 km.

When firing, Dr. Kanter said, the noise was deafening for the 77 men inside each turret.

A video I bought in the adjacent store shows the ship shuddering, its superstructure enveloped in dark, powdery smoke whenever USS Wisconsin spoke.

Its first sailors are now grandfathers, some great-grandfathers. Walk aboard and you'll meet a few. The volunteer escorts on the great ship's deck, the only section open, proudly wear inscribed yellow shirts plus ball caps bearing their ship's name.

One stood out the day I was there, for he served on a "foreign" ship, the USS Salem. And he had a Canadian connection.

After leaving the U.S. Navy, he returned to "civvie street" and became vice-president of Heinz Canada.

"I lived in Oakville," he confided. "They'll let just about anyone on board," another veteran teased.

Dispatched to the Pacific Ocean, the first crew shelled Japanese fortifications during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, then protected U.S. aircraft carriers as they launched air raids against enemy positions.

During the 1950-53 Korean War, the Wisconsin shelled North Korean targets.

Later decommissioned, the battleship became part of the U.S. Navy reserve.

Winsconsin was reactivated in 1986, upgraded with much old-style small weaponry replaced by modern equipment, including Tomahawk anti-ship missiles, Kanter said.

This huge vessel was damaged once, in 1956, when much of the bow was lost during a collision with a destroyer in heavy fog. The bow from the USS Kentucky, a battleship left unfinished in 1945, was used as a replacement at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Finally, as you walk on the wooden deck, keep an eye out for photos -- there is another Canadian connection. One photograph shows Canadian prisoners-of-war aboard USS Wisconsin at Yokohama and Niigata, after Japan capitulated in 1945.

Standing tall and proud, with flags whipped by breezes off the Elizabeth River, this grand old ship serves as a reminder of the might of ocean battles, with memories and honour that binds old sailors forever to its decks.

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BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies daily to Norfolk International Airport, just off Interstate 64 in Norfolk, Va. Take exit 279 and follow Norview Ave. to the airport's entrance. Call 1-757-857-3351. About a 7-8-hour drive from Toronto, USS Wisconsin is docked beside the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk.

The museum is filled with exhibits about the navy history of the Hampton Roads area, offering interactive activites, and a fine gift shop, Open Tue.-Sun., call 1-757-664-1000. Admission, adults $10.95, children 4-12 $8.50, military and seniors $9.95, includes hi-def movies The Living Sea and Gateway to the World.


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