Saturday, March 31, 2018

Camp Battleship

After serving six years (1968-1974) in the Navy, Tim was none too enthused when I suggested we do adult “battleship camp” with Atlas Obscura, a travel group that specializes in unusual tours. He changed his mind when I explained that I wanted to get a flavor of what it was like when he was a sailor, and so we spent last night on the USS Iowa, the decommissioned WWII battleship that’s now a museum in San Pedro harbor.

 USS Iowa

We got to the dock before 5PM. A couple from Nashville and a gal from Great Britain were already there. Once everyone else arrived, the ship historian introduced himself and his volunteer crew and shared the rules of the evening: no smoking and no wandering off on our own. Also, women were to sleep on one of the ship while men slept on the other—a big surprise to us and the other handful of married couples! We then boarded the ship and picked our bunks. I was expecting two beds per bunk, but, no, there were three, leaving very little room for doing anything but sleep.

 We were hoping for officers' quarters, but got enlisted
personnel beds instead. We were told in advance to
bring our own bedding: pillows and sleeping bags.

After the flag-lowering ceremony, we went below deck and ate dinner in the mess hall: lasagna, salad and a roll, plus (for some reason) potato chips, followed by dessert (ice cream sandwiches and popsicles). Tim told me later that the Navy food was much better, but I enjoyed our meal anyway.

 Dinner in the mess hall

There were 30 of us, so we split into two groups for what ended up being an exhaustive tour of the ship. During its heyday, the Iowa was the lead ship of its class and one of the U.S.’s largest battleships. Needless to say, it was also heavily armed and so we talked about and looked at a lot of turrets and munitions. But the ship’s greatest claim to fame was carrying president Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) to Tehran to meet with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin during World War II. The Iowa was also stationed at Japan during the war-ending surrender and ultimately served during the Korean War. It opened as a museum in December 2011.

 Captain's quarters where FDR stayed

Captain's bed
Our tour guides showed us everything from the onboard dentist office to the helm to the captain’s quarters, where FDR slept and held court. It was fascinating, but truly exhausting as we finally limped off to our bunks after 10PM. Despite the cramped quarters, I had no trouble falling asleep as soon as the lights went out and slept all the way till 5AM, when I squeezed out my bunk. Reveille was at 6:30AM. No showers, but breakfast (pancakes and bacon) was served in the mess hall before the flag-raising ceremony and group photos. We then all went our separate ways. Truly an unforgettable experience.

Turrets (forward deck)

 Another view

Dramatic silhouette at sunset

The helm

Hatches galore—so easy to get lost!

Sailor art created during "down time" at sea

More sailor art on passageway walls and doors

Machinery to load munitions into the turrets

Inside tomahawk missile turrets 

"Broadway," the ship-long passageway leading to and from

Starting to look like The Poseidon Adventure

"The Morning After"

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Titan Missile Museum

Nuclear holocaust was a distant but very real threat for those us growing up in the 1950s/60s. We practiced ducking-and-covering when citywide air-raid sirens were tested once a month. We were also intrigued by rumors of people building bomb shelters in their backyards. Ever looming nuclear war was just part of everyday life. However, as I grow older and learn more about the U.S.'s Cold War with the Soviet Union, I marvel at how we even survived that period.

Tim and I usually travel to Arizona every other year to see baseball spring training. While there, we like to take in some of the local attractions, such as the Pima Air Museum & Boneyard or the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. This year we decided to visit the Titan Missile Museum, site of the last remaining nuclear missile on "alert" from 1963 until 1987. 

Located outside Tucson, about two hours from our hotel in Tempe, this unassuming museum is home to one of the 54 nuclear missile launch sites that used to operate in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas. Housed underground, the mega-ton Titan IIs, which were also used to propel Gemini capsules and their astronauts into space, could be airborne within a minute of receiving launch orders. Once detonated, the missile's nuclear warhead would kill everything within a 900-mile radius. But as our tour guides kept emphasizing, the main purpose of the missile program was to deter enemies from launching their own missiles. Luckily the ploy worked, leaving just one unarmed missile site to serve today as a museum and important cautionary history lesson.

Museum entrance

Visitors enter the site through a small building that contains a gift shop and excellent exhibit of Cold War artifacts. The hour-long tours of the missile silo start with a 15-minute video, orienting the group to what they're about to see. The group then goes outside, where a tour guide leads everyone to a set of concrete stairs heading underground.

Impossible to tell there's a mega-ton missile under this
unassuming landscape

Stairs heading underground

The launch site itself actually consists of three areas, connected by long hallways: living quarters and launch control (left), decontamination area (center), and missile silo (right), as illustrated below (click on image to enlarge). Once underground, our guide led us to the control room, where what now looks to be ancient (i.e., early 1960s) equipment used to monitor the missile and await launch orders. Crews of four worked in 24-hour shifts.

Detailed illustration of the underground site

One of many door button panels to enter the inner sanctum

State-of-the-art equipment in early 1960s

The red locker held the launch codes, requiring two people to access—
note the two locks on the locker

From there, we walked down a long corridor, passing the decontamination area and into the silo, where the (now de-nuked) Titan II still stands. The silo was built as two 150-foot-deep concentric cylinders: the outer ring measuring 55 ft. wide; the other, called the "launch duct," 26 ft. wide. Walls are 8 ft. thick. Though not allowed to go inside the cylinders, we were able to peer at the missile through two glass windows. Seeing the Titan II in such close proximity was absolutely breathtaking—not so much as a weapon of war, but more as a vehicle for space exploration, which I love.

Tim walking down the long corridor

Decontamination suits

Emergency shower if exposed to radiation—Karen Silkwood, anyone?

First sight of the missile's main body

De-nuked nosecone

Above ground again, we were encouraged to look at the missile through an observation window created specifically for tourists. And there it was, still standing in its underground silo, waiting for orders to wreak havoc on the world. Chilling, but a fascinating reminder of why no one should have the power to launch mass destruction. 

Looking down on the missile from the observation deck

By the way, if you're a Star Trek fan, you may recognize the Titan II and its silo from the movie First Contact, where savvy scientists turn a deactivated missile into the first "warp drive" spaceship. Yay!