All Hands on Deck! Volunteers at the Battleship North Carolina
You frequently see the Battleship North Carolina nestled in her berth in the Cape Fear River, but when was the last time you took a tour on her or got re-acquainted with her historic significance? Many locals take this national treasure for granted, riding by her every day without giving her a second glance. But some people have not forgotten her importance. They are the ship’s volunteers, who work to restore the battleship and tell the story of her
time in service.
In this story you’ll meet three of the ship’s dedicated volunteers, but first let’s refresh our memories on the history of this monument. The keel of the U.S.S. North Carolina (BB 55) was laid in 1937 and was the first newly designed battleship to be built in 16 years since the First World War. She was commissioned in April 1941 and was considered the sleekest, fastest and most powerful sea weapon of the time. Because of her highly publicized commissioning, new design technology and improved fire power, she earned the nickname of “Showboat.”
Carrying 2,339 men, she set sail for the Pacific and participated in every major World War II naval offensive in the Pacific theater, earning 15 battle stars. The ship lost a total of 10 men in action by the war’s end; five of those men were lost when the battleship was hit in the hull by a Japanese torpedo on September 15, 1942. The devoted crew responded immediately, allowing the ship to keep up with her fleet.
After the war, the ship was used for Midshipmen training and was decommissioned in 1947. In 1958, after learning of the ship’s pending fate of being scrapped, citizens of North Carolina, including school children, started the Save Our Ship Campaign (SOS) and raised enough money to bring her back to the state at her current port. In 1962 she was dedicated to the 10,000 North Carolinians from all branches of service who died in World War II. Today the Battleship continues in the role as a local attraction thanks to more than 200,000 visitors a year, in addition to a nonprofit organization called Friends of the Battleship. It is open year round and offers self-guided tours along with special programs and numerous events.
Enthusiasm and pride surge from the following dedicated volunteers who spend countless hours upon the Battleship North Carolina.
Mark McAllister worked for the U.S. Department of Justice for more than 29 years and served as the Chief of Security for Federal Prisons. He retired eight years ago and moved with his wife from Maryland to Brunswick County. He had spent seven and a half years in the navy as an Aviation Ordnanceman Petty Officer 2nd Class aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga. Therefore, the battleship was a natural allurement for him. When he first stepped aboard the ship, he was immediately impressed with her appearance.
“I have physically visited three other battleships, and North Carolina’s condition is amazing,” says McAllister. “Six years ago, I went on board and I asked the staff if they wanted volunteers. They said, ‘Sure, no problem!’”
McAllister began helping the volunteer “Wednesday Work Party,” as they playfully call themselves. He did maintenance and whatever else that was needed, from moving boxes, to pulling down old electrical wires and replacing them for new lighting, to painting and polishing.
“But you can help out in whatever area that interests you,” he says.
McAllister says he has had many pleasant and fulfilling experiences working on the ship.
“A few years back our Wednesday crew spent the winter taking down old dial telephones on the ship,” he says. “We got sixteen of them working. There’s nothing better than listening to a phone that hasn’t rung in sixty years, all of a sudden start ringing. It was pretty neat.”
He also recalls a time when the volunteers wanted to wash the Kingfisher floatplane on the ship’s fantail.
“We started to clean it and realized half of it sticks over the rail where we couldn’t reach, so we had the NJROTC volunteers unchain it and move it to the middle of the deck so we could finish washing and waxing it,” McAllister recalls.
Now McAllister spends most of his volunteer hours doing educational classes and private tours. He loves bringing history alive for guests and gets a kick out of showing children the phones.
“I have a locker on 2nd deck with one of the old phones in it,” he says. “It’s always surprising watching the kids try to work it. They just put their fingers in the hole and expect it to dial.”
He also participates in special events such as Battleship 101, where docents attend to specific zones of the ship and talk about their area to visitors as they tour by. The Hidden Battleship, in which guests get a special tour of sections that aren’t regularly open, is another favorite of McAllister’s.
McAllister recommends that people not miss checking out the “big guns.”
“If you’re a gun geek like me, you’ll want to see the 16-inch guns, go in turret number three and go all the way down to the magazines of turret number two … and see how it all works,” he says.
McAllister says he volunteers for nostalgic reasons.
“Because every time I step aboard, I’m 18 years old again,” he says. “I get the feel of the steel, the smell of the oil and all the memories come back … of the camaraderie of my shipmates and all that it takes to run a ship.”
He has fun with his fellow volunteers and gets satisfaction from putting things back together again.
“Captain Bragg [the executive director for Battleship North Carolina] sings our praises,” he says. “He shows us off during special programs and events. He introduces us to people like the mayor and members of congress that come aboard. You will never meet a better group of men and women than the staff and volunteers on the North Carolina.”
Michael Zalob and his wife called themselves “snowbirds” at first. After retiring they decided to escape from Albany, New York, during its coldest months and spend their time in southeastern North Carolina. However, over the past five years the area has so enticed them that now they are here nine months of the year. Zalob is a retired dentist, which is his own unique way of connecting with the Battleship North Carolina.
After graduating from dental school, Zalob made a decision to go into the Navy. He eventually procured a job as dentist aboard the U.S.S. Dubuque, an amphibious landing ship.
“The position was vacant because they were waiting for a left-handed dentist,” says Zalob. “It was costly to refurbish the small space for a right hander, and I’m left handed.”
He was on the ship through combat in the Pacific during the Vietnam War in 1971.
“To me it was a great experience and I loved navy life and being at sea,” he says.
Spending time in Brunswick County after his retirement, Zalob looked for a place to volunteer and asked the battleship staff about their needs.
The battleship had never had a volunteer dentist involved before, but they were able to put him to work within his chosen field.
“The whole thing there is to make things look like they did in the 1940s,” Zalob says.
Before Zalob, the ship’s dentist office consisted of a chair and two cubicles, so Zalob offered to fix it up to look like it would have when the ship was in commission.
“The first thing I did,” he says, “was fix the display of X-rays outside the room. There must have been seven different people’s X-rays and they were put in backwards. So I put new ones in to make it authentic.”
Taking it upon himself to do the research by looking at actual diagrams and pictures from the ship’s archives, he was able to put the space together with accuracy. He brought some of his own tools for display and frequented eBay looking for special items. While visiting his daughter in Boston, he happened to tour another ship and asked the staff if they had an extra dental unit. They donated a chair.
Now that the dental office is nearly complete, Zalob thinks he will next work on restoring the pharmacy.
Besides the dental office, Zalob feels that the food prep area on board the ship is a must-see.
“With no fresh vegetables after being at sea for a month the cooks had to use innovation to make the meals,” says Zalob. “It’s fascinating. As they say … an army runs on its stomach.”
Zalob is also part of the Living History crew, which is a separate entity from the battleship itself. He participates in an event called Battleship Alive.
“We play act … I play dentist and kids can get in the dentist chair,” he says.
Zalob gets to put on his lieutenant uniform and again interact with the guests.
“It is amazing to hear some of the memories that come from the people touring,” says Zalob. “I recall one time when I was volunteering and someone called me ‘lieutenant.’ I didn’t respond, because I didn’t realize at first that they were talking to me.”
Zalob says even in the Navy, he never did consider himself an officer who was equal to those who had years of experience and worked their way up. He considered himself a dentist first, who was there to offer a service.
Zalob believes that every landmark plays its role.
“I feel that the U.S. military has gone through some difficult times, and this Memorial shows the benefits of a strong military and why it is important,” he says. “We can’t understand our place today if we don’t understand our history. The battleship served in a specific place and time and it affected historically what has gone forward.”
Zalob sees people from all over come to visit the ship — some proudly wearing caps with their own military insignia.
“I think that after you take a tour it gives you time to reflect on those who served on the battleship and gives you more respect for veterans of all wars,” he says.
Chris Harrison is originally from Michigan, but has lived in North Carolina since 1992. He spent eight and a half years in the active Navy, from 1981 to 1990, and served upon the U.S.S. Camden and the destroyer U.S.S. Conolly. He lives in Winnabow but travels to the Fayetteville Fire Department to work ten days out of the month on 24-hour shifts. He also teaches Fire Training at Bladen Community College and is taking classes to obtain an associate’s degree in emergency management. Even with his busy schedule, he finds time to volunteer aboard the battleship and has been doing so for a year and a half.
Harrison looked on the ship’s website and instantly became interested in volunteering with the Living History crew.
“We are different from reenactment groups that re-create a specific event,” says Harrison. “We come aboard and interpret the day-to-day operations of the guys that were assigned to the battleship during the war.”
They wear either the period dark-blue chambray shirts and work pants or the dress uniform.
The fit of the period clothes takes some getting used to.
“I’m not used to wearing pants that come up that high,” Harrison says. “We can sometimes find uniforms that were actually from someone during the period, but we are finding that those are too small.” Replicas are worn instead.
Harrison quickly became involved in restoring an area of the ship close to his heart: Damage Control Central and Repair Station #2. This fit perfectly with his navy background, civilian fire experience and loves for teaching and interacting with the public.
Harrison spent many hours in Damage Control Central doing research and finding equipment and items, like inclinometers (instruments for measuring the tilt levels of the ship). He considers this room a significant part of the tour, as it was here that the status of the ship was monitored after the hit by the Japanese torpedo.
It took Harrison seven and a half months of researching logs, fuel oil transfer diagrams, etc., to get the status board that hangs on the wall to accurately depict the ship’s damaged and affected areas, as it would have looked on that day.
“This is the first year that this space has been interpreted during Battleship 101,” says Harrison. “During the initial afternoon that this room was open during the tour, we had people sitting on the floor and sticking their heads around the doorway listening to the torpedo story.”
He is also working on organizing Repair Station #2 (the hub from which repairs were made after the torpedo hit). He would also like to add signs along the tour route that explain these areas.
“There are OBA (oxygen breathing apparatus) kits that are original to the ship,” he says. “They were used by the crew to fight any fires that may have occurred on board.”
He is also in the process of doing research on where and when fires may have taken place and when they may have used these kits.
Harrison thoroughly enjoys the time he spends on the ship.
“It is fun working here, and this is my hobby,” he says.
The volunteers’ list of undertakings goes on and on. The volunteers’ and staff’s commitment and attention to detail is heralding. They enable the North Carolina to continue welcoming visitors.
“We consider ourselves caretakers. Everything we do is for the love of the ‘Showboat,’” says Harrison.