By CDR Byron (Jug) Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)
On Friday, January 29, 1999, exactly 55 years from the day she was launched at the New York Navy Yard, the USS Missouri officially became the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In between those years, she served the nation well in peace and war.
The huge ship is perhaps best known as the site where the Japanese surrender document was signed on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay, thus ending the long struggle of WWII — which began for most Americans with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Honolulu executive Ed Carter, retired Admiral Ron Hays and Navy veteran Harold Estes founded the USS Missouri Memorial Association in 1994, to bring the ship to the most logical location - Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor - instead of the other vying cities of Bremerton, Wash, San Francisco or Long Beach, Calif. Two years later, the Navy agreed.
Backed by funds raised through memberships, personal and corporate donations, pledges from the Navy League and a consortium of local banks, and support from the State of Hawaii, the groundwork was laid to tow the 887-foot, 45,000-ton vessel from the West Coast to its new home.
It was 1998 before this could be accomplished. By then the ship was rusted and deteriorated from six years in mothballs at the Navy's Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility at Bremerton. The cracked and damaged teakwood decks, scraped hull, peeling faded paint and other problems presented a more costly and formidable renewal task than the Association had first anticipated. The Navy had stripped all useable interior and exterior equipment when mothballing it in 1992.
These flaws weren't noticeable from Honolulu's parks, lookouts and waterfront on June 22, where huge crowds gathered to cheer Big Mo's arrival. She looked as magnificent from that distance, though not as dressed-out as when she last visited Pearl Harbor for the 1991 celebration of the 50th anniversary of WWII.
When the problems became public knowledge, people began asking what they could do to help. Before long, about 5,000 volunteers were working at various hours. Those I interviewed this day happened to be Navy, but all levels and branches of the service and civilian life are represented.
Captain Don Hess, Navy retired, serves as the Association's vice president of operations, who oversees the work. “Never in our wildest dreams did we foresee receiving this much help from the public, he exclaimed. These people are incredible! I would estimate that they have given us a minimum of 25,000 hours of work. This represents countless savings for our non-profit organization.”
A Librarian at St. Theresa's School in Honolulu, Sister Mary Dugar said she volunteered “because I wanted to be a part of it. I majored in Social Studies in college and I appreciate this important piece of history. I served in the Navy ten years doing optical repair, so I feel right at home. So far they've had me swabbing decks, scrubbing the wardroom, and now I'm a member of the painting detail.”
Volunteers are motivated for various reasons, but mainly because they or a relative or friend once served on the Missouri or because of reverence for her as a “ship of peace.” It is a remarkable example of community spirit and patriotism.
One of the seven permanent maintenance people is Robert Sanchez, of Gary, Indiana. This former Navy Chief Electrician explained how a friend told him about the job opening for a staff electrician on the day of his retirement ceremony. “So I applied for the job and was soon coordinating volunteers and doing what I've always done and loved. Is that a great transition, or what? And for such a worthy and interesting cause!”
Two hours before the scheduled public grand opening, the Association held a special ceremony to dedicate the Memorial and pay tribute to the membership, donors, financial backers, public figures, staff and volunteers. The keynote speaker for this ceremony the USS Missouri's last commanding officer, Captain Lee Kaiss. Association Staff members and volunteers manned the rails, in the tradition of a regular ship's crew at a commissioning ceremony.
Association president Robert Kihune is a native Hawaiian and a retired Vice Admiral. He beamed with pride when asked about the work force. “What the staff and volunteers have accomplished in just six short months since the ship's arrival is astounding! The Missouri looks beautiful and they deserve all the credit for making this project such a success.”
iVisitors reach Pier F-5 by trolley from the Battleship Missouri Visitors Center on Kamehameha Highway. To put them in the spirit of history during the seven-minute ride via the Ford Island Bridge, the trolley plays taped music and news clips that turn back the clock to September 20, 1945, the day the USS Missouri returned to Pearl Harbor, following the surrender.
Exhibits and WWII artifacts on the pier continue this brief journey through history along the way to the gangway. A ship's store offers USS Missouri memorabilia.
Once on board the battleship, the options are to join a group for a personalized tour filled with facts, figures and stories about the ship's record of service — or to explore it on their own.
Inside, the wardroom has been converted into a museum with exhibits, artifacts, displays, and a short video highlight of the Missouri's career. They see the officer's quarters and get a sense of life at sea.
Outside, a winding tour of the ship takes them from bow to stern and from the main deck up ladders and around upper decks to the flying bridge, where they can enjoy a panoramic view of Pearl Harbor and see the USS Arizona Memorial beyond the Missouri's bow. It is a special treat to walk the decks and hear, touch and learn about this floating fortress. Armaments like the enormous 16-inch gun turrets, 5-inch gun mounts, and the Tomahawk launchers, are described in detail.
Guides are stationed throughout the ship to provide information and stories as diverse as a dramatic kamikaze crashing into the starboard side, and anecdotes about President Harry Truman's affection for the ship named after his home state.
One of the highlight of the visit is the “Surrender Deck,” to stand in the same spot where General Douglas MacArthur addressed the world, see the plaques that mark the ceremony, and hear a recounting of the actual events.
FACTS ABOUT BIG MO
She was the last battleship ever built, and the most formidable. Her protective steel armor plating on the hull, turrets, gun mounts, citadel and conning tower, varies from 13-inches to 17.3-inches thick.
Her height from keel to mast equals that of a 21-story building. Her length, if stood on end, would be 33 stories higher than the Washington Monument.
Each of her 16-inch guns is 65 feet long, weighs about 119 tons, and can accurately fire a 2,700-pound shell 23 miles.
Three million man-days were expended during her three-year construction period.
The Navy designated the USS Missouri as Battleship 63. USS Arizona is Battleship 39. Together, the numbers 6339 are used as the post office box number for the USS Missouri Memorial Association.
Contact: USS Missouri Memorial Association, Inc.
P.O. Box 6339
Honolulu, HI 96818.
TEL: (888) USS MISSOURI.
FAX: (808) 423-0700.