- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

NORFOLK The proud old battleship USS Wisconsin will open as a floating museum today, the 57th anniversary of its commissioning for World War II service.

The last American battleship is docked on the downtown waterfront, alongside the Nauticus maritime science and technology center. Nauticus has been closed since January to prepare for the battleship's grand opening and will reopen this morning following a 30-minute parade from City Hall.

"The USS Wisconsin is a symbol of the strength of our Navy and our country," Capt. Stephen E. Barker, deputy commander of the Navy's Mid-Atlantic Region, said Friday during a preview of new exhibits about the ship.

Norfolk officials spent several years lobbying to bring the ship to the city, home of the world's largest Navy base, which was the Wisconsin's home port.

Visitors will be able to walk the ship's teakwood decks and stand beneath its nine 16-inch guns raised at a 45-degree angle as if ready to fire.

They also can tour the superstructure. But the interior, with its sensitive electronic systems, is off-limits; it is being preserved by dehumidifiers in case the ship is recalled to active duty.

Docents trained by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, located in the Nauticus building, will be on hand to give tours and answer questions.

"I was on 12 ships, and this is my favorite ship of all of them," said docent John Cummisk, 75, of Norfolk, who was a radar operator aboard the Wisconsin from October 1951 to October 1954. "Any way to be associated with it is great. It's such a beautiful-looking ship."

The naval museum features a corridor of displays that tell the history of the ship. Several of the ship's veterans also have given the museum personal possessions, including peacoats, photographs, sea bags and even lice powder.

The ship is accessible only through a bridge from the museum. There is no fee to visit the ship or the museum.

Visitors who also want to see the Wisconsin exhibits at Nauticus must pay the center's admission fee of $9.50 for adults, $7 for children 4 to 12. Those exhibits include multimedia technology combining live images and computer animation to allow visitors a peek into the ship's weapons systems, and an interactive theater in which audience members create a battleship by voting on design elements, then watch actual footage of battleships in combat.

The 887-foot Wisconsin was the last of the four Iowa-class battleships, the largest built by the Navy. With top speeds of more than 40 mph, the ships also were the fastest battleships. And their 16-inch guns, which can fire shells at a range of 23 miles, are the most powerful guns ever mounted on an American battleship.

The ships also are well-protected by 17-inch-thick faceplate armor. The only combat casualties suffered by the Wisconsin's crews happened when a 6-inch gun fired upon the ship off North Korea, injuring three sailors.

The Wisconsin saw its first combat in support of landings at Iwo Jima in 1945. The ship also served in Korea and the Persian Gulf war. It was decommissioned three times, the last time in 1991.

The Wisconsin was refurbished at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, and last Dec. 7 more than 300 veterans walked the decks of their old battleship as tugboats towed it from the shipyard to Nauticus, a mile and a half up the Elizabeth River.

The ship will remain in Norfolk for five years while it is on inactive status. The Navy then will either donate or sell the ship, likely to the city.

The Navy paid Norfolk $5.8 million to dredge the river and reinforce the Nauticus pier. The USS Wisconsin Foundation has raised more than $4.7 million to support Nauticus' Wisconsin exhibits, said Mayor Paul Fraim, the foundation's chairman.

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