Retired battleship Mighty Mo to get makeover at Hawaii drydock
• Photo gallery: Mighty Mo ready for a makeover
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
FORD ISLAND — The floating Naval museum that is the USS Missouri will be released from its moorings for the first time in 11 years next month, then pulled and nudged into drydock for $18 million worth of repairs and upgrades.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Kevin Martin and Petty Officer 1st Class Brett Knepley were planning a pinning ceremony aboard the Missouri for 10 new Navy chiefs before the "Mighty Mo" is moved into drydock on Oct. 14. So Martin and Knepley took the opportunity this week to give themselves an impromptu tour of the battleship perhaps best known as the place where a Japanese delegation offered its unconditional surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, to end World War II.
Martin and Knepley stood on the chipped and weathered teak deck on the fantail of the Missouri and considered what the battleship has been through and how much nicer it will look for a new generation of tourists once it leaves drydock in early January and returns to Pier Foxtrot 5 along Pearl Harbor's historic "Battleship Row."
"It was built to be unsinkable," Knepley said. "They don't build ships like this anymore, with all of the compartments and armor. They really were battleships and I can see these things being recommissioned again because you can't beat them as a gun platform — throwing shells as big as Volkswagens for three miles."
The Missouri's "surrender deck" where a Japanese delegation officially ended the war in Tokyo Bay remains one of the highlights of the Missouri. But the ship's place in naval history and U.S. culture reach far beyond World War II.
The USS Missouri came out of mothballs to fight during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and was featured in such movies as "Under Siege" and "Pearl Harbor." Singer Cher's 1980s comeback was spurred, in part, when she donned fishnet stockings and notoriously straddled the Missouri's 16-inch guns in a risque video of her song, "If I Could Turn Back Time."
For the next month, the Missouri will remain one of Hawai'i's 10 most popular tourist attractions as it sits bow to bow with the USS Arizona battleship, which was sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
In July, the USS Missouri attracted 48,111 visitors — it's biggest month ever since it tied up to Ford Island's Foxtrot 5 pier on June 22, 1998.
The Mighty Mo regularly draws 12 percent of all visitors to O'ahu.
"It is a huge attraction for visitors here in Hawai'i," said Marsha Wienert, Hawai'i's state tourism liaison.
"Our hope is that it goes into drydock and gets back into service as soon as possible. It needs to be spruced up now and then and this is part of reinvesting in the attraction."
Admission fees to the USS Missouri range from $16 for an unguided tour to $23 for a basic guided tour. Once the Mighty Mo comes out of drydock on Jan. 7 and resumes tours on Jan. 29, the USS Missouri Memorial Association plans to offer one admission price of $20 that includes guided tours for everyone.
"We have found that tours have a much higher level of satisfaction for our visitors," said Michael A. Carr, president and chief operating officer of the USS Missouri Memorial Association Inc. "There are just so many stories and anecdotes. If you don't hear them, you're missing out on so much."
Despite a sluggish Hawai'i economy and slumping tourism numbers, Carr said, the Missouri continues to see more tourists, primarily because of better coordination between other nearby military attractions, including the USS Arizona Memorial, a national monument that is free to see.
Before this summer, visitors to the Arizona Memorial would only get a number ranking their place in line to see a film about the Japanese attack, just before boarding a Navy launch to get out to the monument that straddles the sunken battleship.
Now, Carr said, visitors are given actual times that they'll see the movie and board their boats, giving them enough room in their days to visit the Missouri or the nearby USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island, which all charge admission.
"Before, people didn't know what time to show up," Carr said. "Now they can plan better and that's made a big difference in our attendance."
Just as visitor numbers to the Mighty Mo have reached record levels, the battleship is now scheduled to enter Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard's Drydock 4 next month — during Hawai'i's traditional slow tourist season between summer and winter.
LONG DAY AHEAD
The USS Missouri Memorial Association is prohibited from firing up the Missouri's engines or guns inside Pearl Harbor, Carr said, so the work to move the Missouri just two miles into the shipyard's largest drydock will begin before sunup.
It will take 30 workers, three to four tugboats and 12 to 14 hours of pushing and towing to get the 887-foot battleship into position.
Two weeks before, engineers will custom tailor 310 wooden blocks with structural support beams to handle the weight of the Missouri. Each keel block will weigh 8,000 pounds, said Kerry Gershaneck, spokes-man for Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.
Once inside Drydock 4, an additional 55 Naval and civilian workers will position the 54,889-ton Missouri above the keel blocks. They'll then spend three hours slowly emptying the 53.4 million gallons of water as divers ensure the Missouri's keel fits snugly into each block, Gershaneck said.
"The easy part is getting us from here over to there," Carr said from his office inside the USS Missouri's former "Damage Control Office."
"You unhook the mooring lines, clear the bow, then we're towed and pushed by the tugs to Drydock 4, where we'll be pushed in backwards, pointing out," he said. "It is slow and time-consuming. Once we're in the right place, they close the gates of the drydock and slowly start draining the drydock until all 55,000 tons of us are sitting high and dry on the dock."
The 2-mile trip from Foxtrot 5 to Drydock 4 is expected to be witnessed by hundreds of people around Pearl Harbor, said Carr, who will be aboard the Missouri for the entire 12- to 14-hour trip with dozens of dignitaries.
"Once you're on, you're on," Carr said. "We won't be able to get off until after the water's drained."
Navy Capt. Gregory R. Thomas, commander of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, said every new shipyard employee — from first-year apprentices to engineers — is indoctrinated in the shipyard's history of resurrecting the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack.
"So we take great pride that our shipyard is helping to preserve one of the greatest symbols of victory in that war — the battleship Missouri," Thomas said.
Thomas, the son of a sailor and the brother of two sailors, said "nothing surpasses Missouri in symbolizing Naval maritime dominance. As an MIT-educated naval architect, I am enthralled with the opportunity to work on one of the finest warships ever built."
Some 200 workers per day from BAE Systems Ship Repair will then spend the next three months sandblasting and repainting the Missouri; installing an underwater hull anti-corrosion system; replacing the rope mooring lines with chains; replacing plumbing, sewage and electrical systems; installing humidity monitors for the ship's 600 tanks; and adding a new tent on the battleship's fantail for parties and other revenue-generating events.
The bulk of the cost — $15.6 million — will be spent grinding off the Missouri's old paint from top to bottom and putting on fresh coats, Carr said. An additional $2.4 million will cover the other costs, he said.
The Department of Defense is providing a $10 million grant and the balance will be paid by USS Missouri Memorial Association funds raised through admission fees and fundraisers, Carr said.
CLEARING THE DECK
Much of the work that can be done above the water line already has begun.
For the past several weeks, the Missouri's superstructure has been covered in scaffolding and encased in sheeting as workers scrape and sand away the old battleship-gray paint.
In an unrelated project, volunteers and workers continue to tear up and replace the Missouri's old teak deck that was designed to keep the ship cool and skid free during wartime, while reducing the chances that sparks could ignite its gun powder magazines, said Keith DeMello, a spokesman for the USS Missouri Memorial Association.
This week, several first-time visitors to Hawai'i and the USS Missouri were surprised to learn that the Mighty Mo will disappear for the next three months.
"It would have been a big disappointment not to get to see it," said Steve Rodarte, a 44-year-old FedEx employee from Phoenix. "This trip would have been incomplete — just incomplete."
Greg Clark, a 58-year-old retired coal miner from New Florence, Pa., said it would have been "terrible" to travel all the way to Hawai'i and not get to walk the teak decks of the Missouri and see its guns up close.
"I would have been really, really disappointed," Clark said, "because it's amazing to see that our country could have built something like this."