By Tommy Hicks
It started with a small Associated Press story in the Mobile newspaper, noting that the World War II battleship USS Alabama was among the warships in the U.S. Navy’s fleet scheduled to be scrapped. William Robert “Bob’’ Miller, who had served aboard the Alabama, read the story and believed something should be done to save it.
So he wrote a letter to his state senator petitioning that the battleship be saved. Miller wasn’t alone. Soon, others across the state became involved in not only saving the USS Alabama from destruction but to bring it to the state where it could be displayed for all to see. Stevens Croom and Jimmy Morris were among the Mobilians who played an active role.
This year, the USS Alabama Memorial Park is celebrating its 50th year. And few are prouder of the anniversary than executive director Bill Tunnell, with the probable exception of Miller and the surviving crew members of the World War II battleship.
“She’s a beauty,’’ Miller said of the battleship during a recent visit to the park.
Miller, 87, a retired veterinarian who resides in Summerdale and is photographed on the cover of this newspaper, said the crew members aboard the USS Alabama were proud of their service aboard the battleship, which played an important role in the U.S. efforts in World War II.
“We took care of each other,’’ he said.
Looking toward the battleship as it sits today for visitors at the park, Miller pointed to one of the 20-millimeter guns on the port side of the Alabama.
“That was my gun,” he said.
He talked about his time on the battleship and noted that one of the most memorable moments of his service was when the Alabama was twice caught in the middle of Pacific typhoons.
“That rocked the ship pretty good,” he said.
Following his military service, Miller was a vet and also a professor, teaching at Auburn University for more than 20 years as well as a couple of years at Purdue University. He left teaching and took a job in the Mobile area where he and his wife remained ever since.
The close proximity to the park allows Miller to visit the Alabama often and he is a regular attendee when the battleship crew holds its annual reunions in Mobile — revisiting the battleship, keeping in touch with each other and rehashing stories of their days onboard.
Tunnell, who has worked at the park since Veteran’s Day 1991 and has served as executive director since May 1997, agrees.
“This has been the dream of a lifetime,” he said. “I was one of those kids in 1964 who raised money (to bring the battleship to Mobile) … It touches everybody all around the state. Everyday is a new pleasure unto itself.’’
The battleship has been tagged the state attraction of the year.
“This has always been one of the anchor attractions for Mobile and we’re probably the most known and most visible symbol in the state of Alabama because we get more than 20-plus million cars that go by here every year,’’ Tunnell said. “You look up and there’s the battleship and [people say], ‘We must be in Mobile.’ We are Alabama. It’s nice to be known by so many.
“People can come in here and live history,” he continued. “What we’ve tried to convey with everything here — the ship, the boats, the planes, the tanks, everything like that — is that it’s all very personal. They’re just pieces of steel. It’s the people inside them, the people that flew the planes and named the guns, that makes this place so special.’’
In honor of the 50th anniversary, Tunnell came up with 51 facts about the USS Alabama and the park.
1. The USS Alabama battleship, according to Tunnell, has had an economic impact, based on admission charges alone, of more than $800 million.
2. The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park represents all the branches of the U.S. military — Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard. “We represent Alabama and her citizens who have kept America free,’’ Tunnell said.
3. The USS Drum submarine, which is also on display at the park, is the oldest Gato-class, WWII-era museum submarine. A reunion of the Drum’s crew was held last month at the park and four members attended. The youngest was 87 years old.
4. The first patrol by the USS Drum resulted in the sinking of a seaplane surrounded by destroyers that responded with depth charges in an attempt to sink the submarine.
5. The aircraft pavilion, which houses many planes and other artifacts, was built to house eight planes but now houses 14. Tunnell said he hopes to soon have an addition to the building or a separate new building for educational programs.
6. The USS Alabama was called the “Lucky A” because during World War II it lost no American lives due to enemy fire. The battleship was also known as the “Mighty A.”
7. Coffee in the morning required four 80-gallon pots to make 320 gallons of coffee for the crew.
8. The Alabama shot down 22 planes.
9. The Alabama was armed with four types of guns and a total of 129.
10. The average age of Alabama’s 2,500-man crew was just 21. That remains the average age of battleship crewmates in the U.S. Navy today.
11. It took 140 men to operate each of the big gun turrets, which were five levels deep on the ship.
12. Each of the 16-inch big guns could shoot a 2,700-pound shell up to 21 miles.
13. When the big guns were firing, more than 58,000 pounds (29 tons) left the battleship every minute.
14. The Alabama was only used for 37 months during World War II and was relatively new — having logged just 218,000 miles — when it was retired.
15. The Alabama cost approximately $80 million to build in 1942.
16. Cooks had to prepare more than 7,500 meals per day, more than 50,000 meals per week and more than 2.5 million per year.
17. The initial fundraising campaign to bring the Alabama to Mobile was one in which school children in the state donated and raised money — sometimes pennies at a time — producing $100,000 in 1964. Approximately $800,000 was produced by a professional fundraising group but it wasn’t enough. Three Mobile banks — First National, Merchants National and American National — loaned the money for the remaining funds needed.
18. Karen Tunks, a professor at the University of South Alabama, is in the process of writing a children’s book about the fundraising project by school children. The cover illustration will feature the battleship floating on nickels, dimes and quarters.
19. The park opened on Jan. 9, 1965, which happened to be the day the Senior Bowl was played. A tribute to the battleship was featured at halftime. The battleship had been decommissioned and taken out of service on Jan. 9, 1947, so that date held meaning.
20. Another Jan. 9 note: Damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced closure of the park for more than four months. It reopened on Jan. 9, 2006.
21. Katrina caused $7.1 million in damages to the park, including the loss of four planes and major damage to 17 others. Additional spending was needed to repair the planes. The ship, which is bogged down in sediment, moved for the first time since 1964.
22. The park’s location was selected because when traveling west on the Causeway it can be seen from miles away.
23. To bring the ship in, the channel was dredged for 11,000 feet in length, 32 feet deep and 125 feet wide — displacing a total of 2.9 million cubic yards of material at a cost of $255,000.
24. The first 75 acres of the park were created from the dredged matter.
25. The Alabama was towed from Bremerton, Washington, to Mobile — at 5,600 miles, the longest ton-per-mile tow in history, according to Tunnell.
26. The Alabama was brought to Mobile through the Panama Canal, which is 110 feet wide; the battleship is 108 feet, two inches wide. The Alabama spent two weeks moored in the Panama Canal as two storms churned through the Gulf.
27. A total of 6,322 men served on the USS Alabama, with 2,500 aboard at one time. Fewer than 300 of the 6,322 are alive today, the youngest being 87.
28. Crew members of the USS Alabama hold a reunion in Mobile every April.
29. More than 15 million people have visited the battleship.
30. Vincent Murphy, the duty officer who was manning a telegraph machine and relayed the message, “THIS IS NO DRILL,’’ as the attack on Pearl Harbor began, was one of the skippers of the USS Alabama.
31. The Alabama is also known as BB-60, the naval identification for battleship No. 60.
32. When the big guns on the ship were fired, it took 540 pounds of black gunpowder (six 90-pound bags for each shot) and the guns could shoot at least once every 30 seconds.
33. It required 3,000 people working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 30 consecutive months to build the USS Alabama. The task was completed nine months ahead of schedule.
34. The Alabama weighs 40,000 tons (80 million pounds) today. When fully loaded during WWII, the ship weighed 90 million pounds.
35. The Alabama is 194 feet high.
36. The battleship’s first captain, George Barry Wilson, went on to help plan the D-Day invasion.
37. The Alabama won nine Battle Stars.
38. The USS Drum won 12 Battle Stars.
39. At full speed, the Alabama could travel at 32 miles per hour (28 knots).
40. In 2003, four million gallons of water was pumped out so the ship’s hull could be repaired.
41. A total of 28 planes from the past seven decades are featured in the park, including an A-12 Blackbird, a CIA spy plane that could fly more than five times the speed of sound (3,000 miles per hour).
42. National Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller served on the USS Alabama.
43. The crew of the USS Drum consisted of just 72 people — seven officers and 65 enlisted men.
44. The keel of the Alabama rests 22 feet beneath the sand of Mobile Bay.
45. The big gun turrets on the battleship could turn up to 270 degrees but were not attached to the ship in any way.
46. The picnic area at the park is modeled after a typical South Pacific village.
47. The park’s Vietnam river patrol boat, on display in the pavilion, went faster than 40 miles per hour and could turn 180 degrees in its own length of less than 40 feet.
48. The park’s Wall of Honor inside the Medal of Honor pavilion honors the 9,583 Alabama citizens who have died for their country since World War I.
49. The aircraft pavilion honors the 30 Alabama citizens who have received the Medal of Honor.
50. Vietnam veterans designed, financed and built the Alabama Vietnam Veterans Memorial located in the park. It honors the 1,213 Alabamians who died in Vietnam.
51. The Korean War Veterans Memorial, located next to the Vietnam memorial, was dedicated June 25, 2002, and remembers 752 from the state who died in that war.
Plans for the annual Fourth of July celebration at the USS Alabama Battleship Park have been set. The park will be open on Independence Day from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., its regular hours, allowing visitors to tour the battleship and the other displays available. The park will close for regular visitation at 5 p.m., when it will open for the Fourth of July celebration. Cost is $5 per car.
The show band Emerge will play a variety of music, including patriotic tunes, from 7-9 p.m. The annual fireworks show, produced by the city of Mobile, is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. The first half of the fireworks show will feature a “Red, White and Blue” tribute to area veterans, with the finale dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the opening of the USS Alabama Battleship Park.
Food trucks will be on site and The Galley, the park’s snack shop, will sell concessions. Those attending the holiday celebration are encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs, but grills, alcoholic beverages and fireworks are not allowed.
The Mobile Police Department will handle traffic control and boaters seeking a close view of the fireworks show are asked to adhere to safety rules, especially as it relates to space requirements for the fireworks barge that will be in use.
For further information about the Fourth of July plans at the battleship, phone 251-433-2703. For more information at USS Alabama Battleship Park visit its website at www.ussalabama.com.