The USS North Carolina battleship memorial launched a public campaign Thursday to finish raising $17 million to repair the ship’s rotting hull and make visitor improvements.
The battleship already has raised $10.7 million of the money it needs for the work, which will include replacing sections of the steel hull, adding a walkway around the ship and a new trail on the island adjacent to it, said Heather Loftin, promotions director for the popular tourist attraction on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.
“We’re moving forward,” Loftin said, applying for permits to begin the work as soon as the money is in hand.
The USS North Carolina, the most decorated battleship to serve in World War II, is on “permanent loan” to the state and is managed by a state commission. But its daily operations are paid for through ticket and gift shop sales, special events, corporate and private donations, and investments.
The legislature occasionally allocates money for specific projects at the memorial. Last year, lawmakers gave $3.5 million toward the hull repair work.
Companies and individuals across the state contributed the rest of what has been raised so far, Loftin said. The State Employees Credit Union gave $3 million, and BB&T and Wells Fargo also have donated.
Now, the Friends of the Battleship North Carolina is asking the public to participate in what it calls the Generations Campaign. Donors can give in several ways: by texting the word “Battleship” to 41444; visiting battleshipnc.com and clicking the “donate” button; mailing a check to the Friends of the Battleship North Carolina with a note on the memo line; or visiting the battleship and hand-delivering a gift.
The work is a continuation of repairs to the hull started in 2011. That year, $2.1 million was spent to fix damage on the starboard, or right, side of the ship’s bow and to build a temporary cofferdam to hold back the river.
This project will include construction of a permanent cofferdam – a watertight enclosure – that will encircle the ship so that any future hull repairs will be easier.
According to histories of the ship and its journey to Wilmington, the USS North Carolina was built in the New York Navy Yard and launched in June 1940. It spent 40 months in the Pacific, traveling 307,000 miles and participating in every major offensive engagement in that theater, earning 15 battle stars and getting credit for taking down 24 enemy planes and one enemy cargo ship. Though the Japanese claimed several times to have sunk the battleship, it was only seriously damaged once, by a torpedo Sept. 15, 1942. Five crewmen were killed.
It was taken back to the New York Naval Yard in October 1946 to be decommissioned.
By 1958, “The Showboat,” whose arrival had cheered bereft sailors when it steamed into Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack there, was considered obsolete. The Navy announced it would scrap the ship along with several others and sell the steel.
A Wilmington television station ad executive named James Craig is credited with launching the effort that stopped the ship’s planned demise. Craig, a veteran, enlisted the help of his American Legion post and recruited then-Gov. Luther Hodges and incoming Gov. Terry Sanford. He also enlisted the aid of Hugh Morton, then a young Wilmington businessman, who saw a great tourism opportunity in the ship.
It was said to be Morton’s idea to offer free tickets to board the battleship to any school student who raised even a dime toward the cost of towing it to North Carolina and mooring it across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington. More than 700,000 students participated, many of them filling milk cartons with coins.
Tucked into its slip on Oct. 2, 1961, the 728-foot-long ship now sits in about 26 feet of mud. Loftin said researchers believe the part of the hull sitting in the mud is quite sound, but the metal that has been exposed to wind and the rise and fall of the tide is now wafer-thin in places and in danger of giving way.
To extricate the ship from the mud and haul it to the nearest shipyard in South Carolina or Virginia would cost at least $35 million, and there’s no guarantee it would survive the trip.
Repairing it in place will cost half that. It also provides the opportunity to add a walkway, to be built atop the cofferdam, from which its 200,000 annual visitors can view the ship and watch the work.
Loftin said plans also include adding an expedition trail on Eagles Island, the spit of land where the ship is berthed.