Statewide fundraiser underway to keep Battleship North Carolina afloat

It will take nearly $17 million to prolong the life of the historic World War II battleship that has been a floating veterans memorial, living classroom and economic driver for the state for more than 50 years.

Docked across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington, the Battleship North Carolina has been a self-sustaining attraction for veterans, students, tourists and the film industry for decades.

But now, with portions of its steel hull deteriorating – officials say it’s paper-thin in some places – ship supporters across the state are conducting fundraising campaigns to keep the ship from becoming scrap.

The “Generations” campaign was started to help raise the money for the necessary, but costly, repairs, said Capt. Terry Bragg, executive director of Battleship North Carolina.

Nearly $12 million will be used to build a cofferdam – or steel wall – around the ship so that water can be pumped out and also for steel repairs, Bragg said. Another $3 million is slated for a handicap-accessible walkway around the ship, and the remaining $2 million will be used for education. The money also will be used for trail work on surrounding Eagle Island.

Once completed, the hull repairs will add a minimum of 40 more years to the battleship’s life, Bragg said. To date, roughly $10 million has been raised or pledged , including a $500,000 allocation from the state’s Repair and Renovation Contingency Reserve. Bragg said administrators are also working with the state to find financial support for repairs during the next legislative cycle.

Bragg estimated that he’s in Charlotte about once a month to give fund-raising updates to campaign leaders, as well as speak to local groups and organizations about the efforts to perpetuate the battleship’s legacy.

Last week, Bragg spoke with the Piedmont Club at the Charlotte Country Club and said that people are often surprised to hear that the ship receives no local, state or federal funding.

The ship receives no tax dollars, Bragg said, adding that daily operations and upkeep depend on daily admissions, special events held onboard, donations and sales from the ship’s store, among other sources.

While there’s no deadline for when the $17 million must be raised, the ship’s administrators hope repairs can be made “expeditiously,” Bragg said.

“The battleship was donated to North Carolina in 1961 and, as part of that donation contract, (officials) established requirements that the state will maintain the battleship in a safe and preserved state,” he said.

“In 2009, the U.S. Navy sent the battleship commission a letter that said, ‘You should be dry-docking the ship for significant repairs every 20 years, and either repair the ship, or plan for its disposal.’ ”

Bragg said the Battleship North Carolina had not been dry-docked for repair since 1953, and “We took that letter from the Navy very seriously We had far exceeded the Navy’s requirement.”

In 2012, $2.1 million worth of steel repairs were made to the ship’s starboard bow, a successful “test project,” that helped create a template for the repairs that administrators are working to fund, Bragg said.

Bids for the cofferdam and trail work will be let out this winter on a national scale, Bragg said, noting it will likely be two years before repairs are complete.

After the hull repairs are finished, the cofferdam will remain in place, though sections called weirs can be opened, allowing the ship to return to its free-floating state, Bragg said. “But we will have the option to pump for (future) repairs.”

“The state’s memorial”

When construction of the battleship began in 1937, it was the first to be built in 16 years, officials said. Battleship North Carolina was the first of 10 fast battleships to join the fleet in World War II and participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations, earning 15 battle stars.

The ship survived a hit by a Japanese torpedo in 1942, and by war’s end, had only lost 10 men, with 67 wounded. The ship was decommissioned in 1947 and made part of the inactive Reserve Fleet off the coast of New Jersey for the next 14 years.

Plans to scrap the ship were announced in 1958 and “The Peoples’ Battleship” was saved by a statewide fund-raising campaign, Bragg said.

“A nickel and dime campaign by schoolchildren” helped raise nearly $330,000 to purchase and dredge a site for the ship, as well as have it towed from New Jersey, Bragg said.

The battleship was donated to the state and was then dedicated in 1962, as the state’s memorial to all WWII veterans and the 10,000 North Carolinians who died during the war.

“They’re now grown up,” Bragg said of the nearly 700,000 schoolchildren who contributed to the Save Our Ship, or “SOS” campaign.

“We’re very proud of our legacy that the Battleship North Carolina – which is the most decorated battleship of World War II – is a reflection of the people of North Carolina.”