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Re-enactors work to preserve the story of the battleship U.S.S. Alabama

U.S.S. Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

An APR news feature

The second World War ended more than 75 years ago. Here in Alabama, one symbol of that conflict is the state’s World War II battleship, the USS Alabama. A group of men and women are working to preserve the memory of the service and sacrifices of the millions who helped win that war.

It’s field trip day for some Alabama school kids as they board the Battleship U.S.S. Alabama. Today’s visit is a chance to see a piece of history they may have heard about from stories told by their grandparents. The work to preserve the meaning of these vessel also goes beyond that. Several times a year, Living History re-enactors in World War II uniforms board the battleship USS Alabama and the submarine USS Drum on Mobile Bay to show visitors what life was like on the warships during the conflict. Activities range from answering questions to shipboard maintenance to battle drills against period aircraft.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

Steven Walczak is commander of the USS Alabama Living History crew. Wearing the uniform of a World War II Navy captain, he explains that part of the job is educating people about the ship.

“I like to tailor things, if I have a few minutes to rub together, to talk to people,” Walczak said. “I ask them if there is any area of interest. The engine room, how we put shells on target. What the guns are like. Propulsion system, the brigs, there are a lot of things in different, things and to be able to talk about that outside of my own special area, I love to see people, especially young people, the eyes and the faces come alive when they learn things that they don't know or would never suspected about ship's operations.”

The re-enactors also work to restore the ship, doing the jobs their counterparts would have been doing almost 80 years ago.

“There are two watertight hatches that weigh about 250 pounds apiece that curation had done refurbishing,” Walczak said. “We actually used the original roller chain hoist. We brought the chain hoist down the ladder and used the rolling chain hoist on the ship, in uniform, just as they would have to rehang these two watertight doors down there on the second deck next to the machine shop. So those are some of the things that we really love to do.”

Just off the stern of the battleship, crew members of the USS Drum talk to visitors about their craft.

“We have our crew. We have about 15 of us here today,” said Brien McWilliams, the Drum’s commander.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“We divide them up into different compartments, the torpedo room, the galley, the control room, the engine room and we have people in each compartment and they're all knowledgeable on what went on there and as people come through, they talk to them and answer the questions,” McWilliams said. “We have people that talk about the guns on the deck here. We try to give them as much of a good living history education about the boat as we can.”

Visitors follow painted arrows to avoid getting lost touring the massive battleship. On the Drum, however, people are amazed how small and cramped the submarine was.

“People being fascinated about the number of men who that actually served on board this vessel,” said Drum Executive Officer and re-enactor Ken Griffeth. “It was like 70, or a little over 70, men and there are like bunks for half that many people, so they would hot bunk, one would rotate out one rotate in and the close quarters to imagine 70-something men below decks in this vessel serving together.”

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“We've had as many as 30 of us at an event and we were crowded, so to have twice that number," Griffeth said. "The intestinal fortitude that those guys had, what they went through and didn't go home and sleep in their bed tomorrow like we're going to do. They stayed on this ship for years. So, it's really incredible what they did versus what we do trying to honor them.”

Griffeth said a love of history attracts more most re-enactors to the effort.

“What drew me into this and, I think most of us from childhood was a great interest in military history of any kind, especially US American history,” he said. “I think any living historian from early childhood had a very strong interest in military history.”

"This is home. This is home,” said visitor James Barry of Pensacola stops to chat with the re-enactors. “I grew up on diesel submarines. I came in in 61.”

Barry, a 26-year submarine veteran, spent much of his life on boats like the Drum.

“My first submarine was the Pomfret. That was Jimmy Carter's boat,” recalled Barry. “He had to quit because his dad died. So he had to stop being an officer and take care of the farm.”

The food on a diesel sub was the best in the Navy, but a tour could be difficult.

“The after end of this boat off the forward engine room is our evaporators. We made water for cooking, water for drinking, water for the batteries. Did I miss anything? Oh you mean like showers, no, wasn't enough water for showers,” said Barry.


Back on the Alabama, another group of volunteers worked deep in the ship rebuilding the vessel’s radios. Ken Morgan says they plan to have the battleship transmitting again with its 1940s radios by this fall.

“The transmitters do function,” Morgan said. “So, hopefully, by September, October, we'll be sending out messages using the ship's actual radios that were on here. Haven't really been used for 75 years, since 1947 and we'll be sending out messages, on the AM side on CW, hopefully around September."

CW means that if you want to tune in, you’ll need to know Morse code. Voice transmissions weren’t used for long distance communications in World War II. Volunteer Ken Bell says those Morse transmissions go a long way, however.

“In fact, the first day we actually hooked the radio up on here to check out the antennae that we're using, we talked to a guy in the Philippines,” Bell said.

Morgan is retired history and political science professor. He said working on the radio room and transmitters has been an experience of a lifetime.

“That's the reason why I jumped at this,” Morgan said. “It was kind of like a bucket list to come onto a museum and help restore a museum piece like this and help preserve the nation's history. It's great. I've had a marvelous time doing it.”

Two decks above, two women in Navy uniforms tell visitors about the role of women in World War II. Women didn’t serve on warships like the Alabama, but Courtney Woodall said the Women on Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, still made a big contribution to the war effort.

“So they freed up about 60,000 men that were able to go and fight and they did all the onshore jobs that the men did. They ended up being gunnery instructors, so learned to shoot the 20 millimeter, the 40 millimeter, the .50 cal. on the aviation side of them and then the instructed the men, the new men, how to do it," Woodall said.

She and other WAVES living history members come over from Georgia two or three times a year. She said that in a way, she’s carrying on a family tradition.

"My grandmother was in Korea in the Air Force, she served. I had a grandfather who landed at D-Day and went all the way through, so I had a connection with them and this time period and just wanted to bring that to the public," she said.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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