A Grey Ghost in Norfolk

(Source: author’s collection)

I’m a “Boomer”, which means I grew up reading a steady stream of books about World War II, “the Greatest Generation”, etc. With the passage of the years came a greater understanding that a lot of what I took as historical gospel was in fact somewhat whitewashed, the facts occassionally a little more nuanced than what I’d been led to believe as a teenager in southwest Missouri, where the hagiography of “American Exceptionalism” is, quite literally, taken as gospel. But some of what I learned about that war has in fact stood the test of time, particularly the amazing productive capacity and technical prowess of the generation that gave us the 888 foot-long monster you see in the picture above.

I’d always wanted to walk the deck of an Iowa-class battleship, so on August 23, I did just that in Norfolk, VA–the final homeport of the U.S.S. Wisconsin (BB-64). The ship’s last war-time action came during Desert Storm, as this historical account notes:

Wisconsin, escorted by Nicholas, relieved Missouri on the 6th, answering her first combat call for gunfire support since March 1952. The most recently recommissioned battleship sent 11 shells across 19 miles of space to destroy an Iraqi artillery battery in southern Kuwait. Using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as a spotter in combat for the first time, Wisconsin pounded Iraqi targets and Iraqi boats that had been used during raids along theSaudi coast. Wisconsin‘s turrets boomed again on 8 February, blasting bunkers and artillery sites near Khafji after the Iraqis were ousted from the city by Saudi and Qatari armor. The two battleships alternated positions on the gun line, using their 16-inch guns to destroy enemy targets and soften defenses along the Kuwait coastline for a possible amphibious assault.

This was the first war in the Muslim word in which we used drones in combat. Then, they were just the spotters for ordnance being fired by other platforms–in this case, 1900lb high-explosive shells from ships out of a by-gone era. Just over a decade after the end of Desert Storm, the unmanned aerial spotter would become the unmanned aerial hunter-killer, ushering in another American-led military and technological revolution. But the initial tactics for employing those drones began with the Wisconsin’s naval gunfire support missions off of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. 

If you’re ever in Norfolk & want to see the ship for yourself, she’s berth right next to the Nauticus Museum.

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