USS North Carolina Battleship
One of the most visibly prominent monuments in historic Wilmington is also one of its most popular visitor attractions. The USS North Carolina Battleship stands as a sentinel watching over the downtown area and boasts an illustrious World War II background. She was built at the New York Naval Shipyard and was ready for duty by June of 1940. As the first new-construction battleship to take part in World War II, North Carolina was built with all of the latest features in shipbuilding technology. Weight on the ship was saved by using welding construction, a new technique during those years and a clean hull and overall structure were a far cry from the traditional designs of battleships built before her.
After being put through her war exercise paces, North Carolina headed for the Pacific and ultimately Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1942. As the first new battleship to enter the Pacific since the war began, she was an impressive sight to behold and caused a great uplifting of morale in the Pacific fleet. Sailors at Pearl Harbor were heard to have commented that the North Carolina was "the most beautiful thing they had ever seen."
She began her march into the campaign against the Japanese by helping with the landing of Marines on Guadalcanal in August of 1942. She was the only battleship in a contingent of carriers, including the Saratoga and Enterprise, and was also accompanied by cruisers and other escorts of these structures. North Carolina's primary function was to guard and protect the carriers and cruisers in the event of an attack and got her first test during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24, 1942 when enemy carriers were sighted. During an eight minute stretch of action, she shot down over ten enemy aircraft and sustained zero damage. When all was said and done, the Japanese had lost around one hundred planes in this battle and as a result the US won control of this airspace in the Guadalcanal area.
After a few other skirmishes, North Carolina headed back to Pearl Harbor for repairs and more antiaircraft weaponry. She then returned to action for on assaults Makin, Tarawa and Abemama in November of 1943 and engaged in some of deadliest fighting of the war in the Pacific. In the battle and eventual capture of the Marshall Islands, she displayed the typical battleship functions that were expected of these wartime vessels by continuously shielding carriers from air attacks and monitoring air space in order to protect troops onshore.
During 1944, North Carolina continued to assist and protect the Enterprise carrier group. In addition to providing much needed protection, she also played a big role in attacks on the west coast of Saipan and Tanapag, sinking small vessels and ravaging enemy supplies and ammunition stores. During the battle of the Philippine Sea, she destroyed many of the Japanese invaders before they reached the American ships. During this battle, it is said that North Carolina made a huge impact by virtually ending all future threats from Japanese naval aviation.
After various other battles and war skirmishes, North Carolina assisted in taking sailors and Marine crew ashore in Japan immediately following the end of the war for occupation duty in 1945 and spent time patrolling the waters until the men re-embarked. During the final months of her active duty, she spent time getting overhauls and carried midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy to the Caribbean for summer training sessions.
North Carolina was decommissioned on June 27, 1947 and was scheduled to be sent to a naval scrap yard to be broken down and sold. A man named James S. Craig, who was a war veteran got wind of this plan and began to research how the battleship could be saved. He had heard of other war battleships that became memorials and felt that North Carolina deserved the same honor for everything that she had accomplished and would be permanent monument for all to see and appreciate.
His efforts and those of many other individuals including former crew members, led to the organization of the Save Our Ship campaign. Though she was not built in North Carolina, thousands of North Carolinians took up the cry and campaign to bring the North Carolina home. Over a million people contributed money in order to purchase the ship to prevent it from being scrapped. Former crew members who gave their service willingly gave money for the ship that protected them for years. Though they were not selected as the home site for the North Carolina, Southport and Morehead City both made sizable contributions to the campaign. Local school children gave their dimes to the cause and even President John F. Kennedy made a donation.
The Save Our Ship campaign eventually raised $330,000, which was the equivalent of around $2.4 million today. On September 25, 1961, the battleship North Carolina began heading to her permanent home of Wilmington, North Carolina with nine tugboats pulling her the entire way from New York. She opened to the public on October 14, 1961 and had over 5,000 visitors on that day alone.
Today, visitors and locals alike can have the opportunity to explore a piece of history. In addition to the impressive gun structures, multiple decks and officer rooms and various other parts of the ship to view, there are also two very important rooms that cannot be missed. One is a room that shares the story of the Save Our Ship campaign. It lists the names of the 2,400 donators who made the "Admiral" donation status as well as all the schools that had school children donate their money. There is also a wall with a plaque honoring James S. Craig, the man who started the quest to have the North Carolina saved. Another important room has three walls where names are engraved in bronze of the 10,000 North Carolinians who lost their lives in World War II.
The North Carolina is one of the most honored and decorated ships in history, having participated in every major offensive battle fought in the Pacific during World War II. She earned fifteen battle stars and the nickname of the Immortal Showboat. From her very first activity in the war until the surrender of the Japanese, out of 144 officers and 2,195 enlisted men, only 10 died and 67 were injured which was an outstanding measure of how well she fought for and protected everyone in battle. The battleship North Carolina is a wondrous monument to the past and a perfect complement to historic downtown Wilmington.
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