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Nick Wakeman

Battleship tour offers lessons in communications

I’m back from spring break with my family, and a highlight for me was a visit to the USS North Carolina, a World War II battleship that is a floating museum in Wilmington, N.C.

I remember visiting with my parents when I was a boy, so taking my own sons was a chance to relive a bit of my childhood. You pretty much have the run of the ship. There are arrows to follow if you want to hit everything, but otherwise, you are on your own.

We climbed into turrets for both of the 16-inch guns as well as the five-inch gun. We went down into the bowels of the ship where the 16-inch shells and gunpowder is stored. We climbed through the engine room, the galley and the sick bay. The galley looked like it wouldn't take much to fire up the stoves and grills and start cooking.

Two things became clear to me. First, this ship was built to live up to the designation of a battleship – nine 16-inch guns, 20 5-inch guns, and 16 anti-aircraft guns. Another 46 single 20mm machine guns bristle from the teak decks.

That’s a lot of firepower.

The second thing, though, was just how important information was to the ship. There were radio rooms, fire control rooms, cryptography rooms, internal communications rooms, radar rooms, and a damage control room. There also was the system for sending commands from the bridge to the engine to control the speed and direction of the ship.

The damage control room had a large wall map of the ship where they would pinpoint problems such as fires, floods, broken pipes or backed up toilets. There also were panels of what I’ll call electro-mechanical controls which monitored the fire-suppression devices on the ship.

The fire control room was where the targets were tracked and trajectories of shells were calculated. The information would then be used to adjust the height and orientation of the guns.

Communications internally and with other ships took scores of people working in cramped quarters.

Touring the ship was an objective lesson on the critical link between communication and firepower.

The visit brought home to me how the challenges and needs of warfighters in World War II aren’t really different than what the needs are today. The guns are blind without the right information being delivered at the right time.

My oldest is 5 and was of course thrilled to be climbing on the guns and going up and down the passageways. But that night, he wanted me to explain cryptography to him.

So, we made a simple code by shifting the alphabet one letter and writing a message for Mom. He was proud that she couldn’t figure it out until we gave her some hints.

Maybe we have a future NSAer in the family. But the message was, “Mom, buy me chocolate.” So maybe not.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Apr 21, 2014 at 7:59 AM


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