View Full Version : Last two battleships' friends, foes bring out the big guns

06-18-05, 09:07 AM
Last two battleships' friends, foes bring out the big guns
By Harry Levins
Of the Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Jun. 18 2005

The Navy wants to let go of its last two battleships. But a group called the
United States Naval Fire Support Association is doing its best to torpedo that
plan. Both sides are firing salvos across newspaper op-ed pages.

The issue: Does a weapon that was born in the 19th century and came to maturity
in the 20th century still have a role in the 21st?

The answer could well decide whether the battleships Iowa and Wisconsin rejoin
the fleet-in-being - or whether they'll join their sister ships Missouri and
New Jersey as floating museums to an age gone by.

The Navy says that taking the two ships out of mothballs would eat up vast
amounts of money and sailors for a marginal return on the investment. Newer,
lighter ships can do the same job, the Navy says.

Not so, says the Fire Support Association. That private group insists that only
the battleships can provide the long-range, heavy-hitting firepower that
Marines might need someday in places like North Korea.

A Navy spokesman in the Pentagon never responded to a list of e-mailed
questions about the battleships. But in an op-ed piece in the Washington Times
this week, a two-star admiral made the case for putting the battleships out to

"We should not confuse our fondness for these ships with an assumption of their
appropriateness for the task at hand," wrote the officer, Rear Adm. Charles S.

Hamilton said the Navy's idea of appropriate was the next generation of
destroyer, the DD(X). These vessels will have two 155 mm superguns that can
reach out to 95 miles.

A bit of math here. A 155mm gun fires shells that measure 6.1 inches in
diameter. The Naval Fire Support Association quickly note that the shells fired
by the big guns on the Iowa and Missouri measure 16 inches in diameter. What's
more, each battleship has nine of these 16-inch guns.

On the Washington Times' op-ed page of June 6, the association's science
adviser wrote of high-tech upgrades that could trim some diameter from the
shells - but pump them out to 115 miles, maybe someday out to 460 miles.

"Reactivate the battleships now," writes the adviser, physicist Dennis Reilly.
"Would you rather have a museum or a live Marine?"

The association's chief insists that the Marine Corps stands behind its group.
"Battleships can still save Marines' lives," the chief - William L.
Stearman - wrote in this month's issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.

And in a phone interview from his home in Rockville, Md., Stearman said the
plan to retire the battleships "borders on sordid. It's a scandal of the first

He said: "We've met with the Marines, and they want the battleships. But the
Navy has criticized the battleships throughout the debate."

Battleships may have no bigger fan than naval historian Paul Stillwell of
Arnold, Md. He served aboard the New Jersey off Vietnam and has since written
six books about the graceful ships.

In a phone interview, Stillwell opened with a glimmer of hope for battleship
buffs: "The battleships are a useful insurance policy, because we don't know
what the future holds."

But then, he spelled out the dark side: "It's extremely unlikely that they'll
come back on active service."

True, he said, their big guns are unique. "But these ships are old - 60 years
old," Stillwell said. "And they're manpower-intensive, which runs against the
current trend of smaller ships with smaller crews. The Navy would have to find
crew members from 20 years back to man the gun systems."

Stillwell's bottom line on the battleships: "They're designed for another era
of warfare."
Reporter Harry Levins
E-mail: hlevins@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8144