Heritage: USS Alabama, Alabama Magazine, Nov/Dec 2012

Alabama Magazine
November/December 2012

Along Mobile Bay, just as the eastbound I-10 begins to cross the water toward Spanish Fort, more than 42 thousand tons of steel stands docked along the coastline. The USS Alabama runs 680 feet long and stands 108 feet high, and holds some of the most powerful American naval weaponry produced during World War II. 

Since 1965, the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park has offered 14 million visitors a chance to experience this piece of American military history firsthand. With more than 20 million vehicles passing the battleship every year on the interstate, it is the most visible symbol of the state of Alabama, says park executive director Bill Tunnell. 

Today’s visitors walk through the same spaces that served as a temporary home to the more than 2,300 officers and enlisted men serving on the USS Alabama at any given point in its five years of active duty. Tunnell explains that from its commissioning in August 1942 until the Alabama’s retirement in January 1947, a total of 6,322 crewmen served on the battleship.

The massive ship contains a myriad of compartments, allowing it to account for its military purposes and the crew’s day-to-day needs. On deck stand three turrets, holding a total of nine 16-inch guns, each capable of shooting a 2,100 pound, armor-piercing shell more than 20 miles. Accompanying these guns are 20 five-inch, 38 caliber guns in 10 twin mounts. In all, the Alabama carries 129 guns. Deep inside, near the bottom of the ship, guests can tour the labyrinth of corridors and narrow staircases where the guns’ massive shells were stored alongside the intricate system of belts used to load them. 

This weaponry was deployed as part of Allied campaigns in the Pacific and Atlantic, earning the Alabama nine battle stars. During its service, the ship also acquired the nicknames “Mighty A” and “Lucky A” because it never lost a life on board due to enemy fire.

Between the spaces devoted to the USS Alabama’s weaponry are the battleship’s more human spaces. This includes a fully-equipped soda fountain and a store where servicemen once purchased personal amenities, like cigarettes, combs, hair product, and playing cards. To ensure that uniforms were always in shape, special rooms were dedicated to a cobbler and tailor. There is even a designated room where dress uniforms were pressed.

“We try to create a situation that is literally a living history experience,” says Tunnell. “We hope that they step back in time to 70 years ago when the ship was in commission.” 

The mission to preserve the USS Alabama began in 1964. Tunnell explains that after the ship was decommissioned in 1947, it was sent to Bremerton, Wa., across the Puget Sound, joining other retired battleships as part of the “moth ball fleet.” In 1962, the US Navy decided to scrap the Alabama and the three other South Dakota class ships built during World War II. After the Mobile Press-Register ran a story about the upcoming demolition, a statewide committee formed to preserve the ship and bring it back to Alabama.   

School children began collecting small donations for the “Mighty A.” At the time, Tunnell was among the children who helped raise nearly $100,000, mostly in coins. Their contributions were pooled with corporate sponsorships, raising the necessary $1 million to tow the ship back to the gulf — the longest non-military tow in history — and restore the ship. 

On Jan. 9, 1965, the Battleship Memorial Park opened to the public. On July 4, 1969, another artifact of US naval history — the USS Drum, a World War II submarine — joined the Alabama. The park also added an airplane hangar and airfield, where some of the US military’s flagship aircraft and armored vehicles have also been preserved. The collection includes planes used in Korea, Vietnam, and throughout the Cold War. Since the park opened, it has contributed more than $500 million to Alabama’s statewide economy, says Tunnell. 

Through the richness of its holdings, Tunnell says that the park hopes to give visitors a sense of the historic and ongoing service undertaken by the US military.