MOBILE, Ala. — For more than three and a half years, Bob Feller called the narrow metal bunk his home.
With scarcely enough room to move his lanky frame, Feller probably spent countless nights dreaming of his family and the Iowa farm where he was born.
A record-breaking baseball pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, Feller also might have pondered what his future could have held if not for World War II.
Two days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Feller joined the Navy. Upon his enlistment at age 22, Feller was at the peak of his career — he had 109 major league victories, by far the most ever in major league history by a pitcher at age 22.
During the 44 months he was in the Navy, Feller spent most of that time stationed on the USS Alabama in the gunnery department. He gained eight battle stars.
Stories such as Feller’s are brought home with sudden impact to visitors aboard the USS Alabama, now moored at Mobile, Alabama.
When the Grande Caribe docked in Mobile for our first shore stop on our 12-day cruise, passengers had a choice of visiting Bellingrath Gardens or the USS Alabama. Big tour buses picked us up at the dock for the three-and-a-half-hour excursions. We left shortly after breakfast and would get back shortly before lunch.
TRIBUTE TO VETERANS
As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I chose the USS Alabama. The battleship, like so many other war memorials, is almost tangibly serene. A warm sun shines and the bay has scarcely a ripple on this cloudless day.
Visitors tread the decks and cabins in respectful silence, as if entering a church. They read the historic papers and scan the old photographs and try to imagine what it was like.
But it’s impossible to envision the roaring thunder and smoke, the ear-shattering shouting and scrambling, the unspeakable horror and death that happened on the USS Alabama, not once but throughout 37 months of active duty.
She earned not only nine battle stars but also the nickname “Lucky A” from her crew of 2,500 because she emerged unscathed from the heat of each battle.
The Battleship Alabama saw action in the Atlantic for a year before joining the Pacific Fleet in mid-1943. There she fought at such key locations as Leyte, the Gilbert Islands and Okinawa. The Alabamaserved in every major engagement in the Pacific during World War II.
After the signing of the war-ending surrender documents in September 1945, the “Mighty A” led the American Fleet into Tokyo Bay.
Less than 20 years later, the beloved battleship was headed for the scrapheap. A small group of Alabama people was dismayed to read a short Associated Press report on May 1, 1962, that four battleships were to be destroyed — the Alabama, the South Dakota BB57, the Indiana BB58 and the Massachusetts BB59.A
The group sprang into action. In a matter of months, they had raised $1 million, including more than $100,000 that came from Alabama school children.
The USS Alabama was saved, as was the USS Massachusetts, which now rests in Fall River, Mass. The other two battleships were scrapped.
It took three months for the Alabama to travel from Bremerton, Wash., to Mobile Bay. “It is the longest ton/mile tow in history,” says Bill Tunnell, executive director of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.
The 35,000-ton Alabama was towed 5,600 miles, barely squeaking through the Panama Canal. “The ship is 108 feet and 2 inches wide. The Panama Canal is 110 feet wide in some places,” Tunnell explains. “It was only by a razor’s edge that we were able to get her home. We’ve got some pretty awesome pictures of that trip.”
The Alabama rounded the bay into Mobile in the summer of ’64. She was opened to the public on Jan. 9, 1965, as a non-tax-supported project.
“That was 18 years to the day she was decommissioned,” Tunnell adds. Since then, the Alabama and the surrounding 100-acre Battleship Memorial Park have attracted millions of visitors.
You can explore below and upper decks and roam through the captain’s cabins, officers’ staterooms, messing and berthing space and crew’s galley. Authentic touches include calendar girl pinups and background music, with such singers as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra crooning songs popular during the 1940s.
While on board, you can see the museum displays and hear first-hand the remembrances of crewmembers who served aboard the Alabama. A continuous running film showcases the recollections — some humorous, many poignant and painful — of the crew. The interviews are interspersed with startling footage of aircraft attacks.
“We’ve got about 25 hours of these guys talking,” Tunnell says. “Some of their tales are wonderful but then some of them are grisly. After all, they were out there in the middle of the ocean and the enemy planes were intent on one thing — blowing them out of the water.”
One guy recalled cooking 2,000 pounds of turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner on the battleship. Another explained how crewmembers learned to hook one thumb in the food tray and their hand under the table to keep their tray from flying off the table.
“One time,” a white-haired man said, “the General Quarters went up when I was in the shower. I ran out stark naked because you went however you were. It might be a matter of life or death.”
Nearby the battleship, you can climb inside the USS Drum and see first-hand the cramped and claustrophobic conditions under which the submariners lived and worked.
You can thread your way through the Drum and marvel at how a crew of 72 men could live, run their ship and fire torpedoes while confined to such tight quarters.
The Drum earned 12 Battle Stars during World War II, and is credited with sinking the fourth largest amount of enemy tonnage in the war.
The new Aircraft Exhibit Pavilion allows visitors to experience the thrill of flight without leaving the ground. You can take a ride in a flight simulator and see the B-52 Stratofortress “Calamity Jane” and the A-12 “Blackbird” spyplane, among a slew of others.
The state’s leading tourist attraction, Battleship Memorial Park, takes hours to see. When you’re tired of all the metal and iron, you can rest and enjoy the award-winning memorial rose garden or browse through the gift shop or snack bar.
Each April, the crew members of the USS Alabama return to the battleship for a reunion. This year the special weekend falls on April 12-15.
“Each year there are fewer and fewer of the surviving crew members,” Tunnell says.
One of those returning crewmen had been the man himself whose tiny bunk is designated with a plaque, “Bob Feller Slept Here.”
After the war ended, “Bullet Bob” Feller returned to the Cleveland Indians, became an All-Star pitcher again and is honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He was just a prince of a fella and I never heard him complain about enlisting and lessening his opportunity to win more major league games,” Tunnel says.
Feller died Dec. 15, 2010.
For more information: Contact the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park at (800) GANGWAY, www.ussalabama.com