The Navy announced agreement with the City of Norfolk yesterday to berth the battleship USS Wisconsin at a nautical museum in the port city's downtown, where officials hope the huge warship will become a major tourist attraction.
It will be a short--and likely final--trip for the Wisconsin to its new home on the Elizabeth River adjacent to Norfolk's National Maritime Museum, or Nauticus. The Wisconsin has been berthed at a facility for inactive ships just several miles away in Portsmouth.
The 56-year-old warship, which saw action in three conflicts, will become the latest Navy property to be converted from military asset to historic artifact as the needs of the military change.
The Wisconsin was one of the last four battleships built by the United States for service in World War II. Congress has suggested that the battleship Iowa be sent to San Francisco. The battleship New Jersey, now at Bremerton, Wash., will be given to a not-for-profit entity for location in New Jersey. The Missouri, scene of the Japanese surrender in World War II, has been transferred to the Navy memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The 888-foot-long Wisconsin, the longest American battleship ever built, is the latest prize in efforts by Norfolk officials to rejuvenate the city's downtown. In March, a $300 million, 1.5 million-square-foot mall, the MacArthur Center, opened on a 17-acre site.
Relocating the Wisconsin should take about 16 months, which might allow the battleship to begin welcoming visitors in time for the Navy's 225th anniversary in October 2000.
Rear Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer, commander of the Navy's mid-Atlantic region, called the agreement "a major milestone in making Wisconsin available for visits by the American public. I look forward to the day when all citizens can see, touch and experience this icon of Navy capability and tradition."
Norfolk, home to the world's largest naval base, "is the appropriate place for it to rest," noted Mayor Paul D. Fraim, "because it spent most of its active-duty career home-ported in Norfolk."
Fraim praised U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) for working for two years to ensure that two of the battleships--the Wisconsin and the Iowa--will be maintained on the Naval Vessel Register, which means they could be reactivated if needed.
Such a listing also ensured that the Navy will pick up the cost of maintaining the ships. The contract calls for the Navy to spend about $5.8 million on the Wisconsin over the next five years, which, along with an additional $4 million appropriated by the Navy, should cover all costs associated with moving the ship, including dredging part of the river and building a berth and connecting walkway at the museum, according to the mayor's spokesman, Charlie Hartig.
The Wisconsin was commissioned at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1943 and saw action in three conflicts--in the final phases of the Pacific campaign during World War II, Korea and the Persian Gulf.
George Miller, president of the 1,000-member USS Wisconsin Association, said he and others who served aboard the Wisconsin "look forward to being able to go aboard and relive old times."
Miller, 66, a retired classified advertising salesman in Elyria, Ohio, served as a radioman on the Wisconsin in 1953, when it was based at Norfolk.
Not everyone is thrilled with the move, however. Fraim acknowledged that 26 residents of a nearby condominium complex have complained that the ship's new location will block their view of the waterfront.