Virginia: By making the most of its military history and waterfront location, Norfolk is transforming itself into a tourist destination.

April 08, 2001|By Jerry V. Haines | By Jerry V. Haines,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Norfolk used to be a city that sailors loved to hate. I think it was in our enlistment contracts: "I agree to despise every duty station to which I am assigned." And because there was so much Navy in Norfolk, it always got the most abuse from my fellow bluejackets.

They should see it now. Norfolk is cleaning up like a boot camp before an admiral's inspection. I suppose you can still get a tattoo in town, but the sailor bars, easy-credit jewelers and pawn shops are disappearing. Now there are boutiques and antiques shops. There's a fancy new shopping mall downtown, and upscale dining of a sort that in my day was unknown even in the officer's club.

The newest attraction of the new Norfolk is an old ship. Amid the banks, condos and hotels downtown there is a gray steel building -- with missile launchers and 16-inch guns. It's the USS Wisconsin. Moored next to the Nauticus maritime museum -- Norfolk's most popular visitor attraction -- it dominates the view. The tip of its mast is even with the roof of a nearby 11-story office building.

Opening to the public April 16, the Wisconsin is one more reason to think of Norfolk as a tourist destination. That never would have occurred to me back in my Navy days. But Norfolk wisely has decided to make a virtue of being a waterfront military town.

Norfolk was founded in 1682, and although sections of the city are referred to as historic, much of the city was destroyed by British forces in 1776. (The restored homes of the historic Ghent District, for example, date back only to the late 19th century.) Of the pre-Revolutionary War buildings, only St. Paul's Episcopal Church survives, and it still carries a British cannonball in its wall as a memento.

Norfolk and the Navy have been a comfortable fit for some time. The city is located where the Chesapeake Bay and the James River meet the Atlantic Ocean. The harbor is considered ideal for warships because the high salinity of its waters makes freezing unlikely. There has been a Navy presence in Norfolk for as long as there has been a Navy. Even before the official birth of the U.S. Navy, state navies were active in the area.

The big Norfolk Naval Station, established in 1917, is a relative youngster in the city. The site was formerly the home of the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. (The distinctive homes constructed for the exposition are used today as residences for admirals and the occasional visiting general.)

Lots of Navy gray

The original purpose of battleships was to fight other battleships, but even as the ceremonial champagne bottle was shattered against Wisconsin's hull in December 1943, that era of naval warfare had ended. In World War II, Wisconsin supported amphibious landings, guarded aircraft carriers, replenished smaller ships and served as a floating hospital.

As its role changed from war to war, it was modified to do new things. Joe Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Wisconsin's parent organization, points out that Wisconsin once launched sea planes from its stern, plucking them out of the drink with a huge crane. For Korea, the sea-plane catapult gave way to a helipad. Wisconsin sat out Vietnam, but in Desert Storm it launched Tomahawk missiles in the interests of discouraging Iraq's advances into Kuwait, along with firing 2,500-pound rounds (about the weight of a Honda Civic coupe) at Iraqi installations up to 23 miles away.

Even today, as visitors line up to stroll along its teakwood decks, Wisconsin again could be called into action. The battleship is in the inactive fleet, and to keep it in shape for duty it has been carefully sealed. But there is a lot to see on its main deck, where tours are given. And at nearby Nauticus, there are other ingenious ways to explore the Wisconsin.

The ship is 887 feet long, and the tour takes about 40 minutes. You can get up close to those 16-inch guns (largest ever on a U.S. warship) and their 5-inch kid brothers. You can see the Tomahawk and Harpoon missile launchers, and you can walk uphill to the tip of the trademark angled bow that distinguishes Iowa-class battleships.

To get an inside view, you need to go virtual. Using eight devices known as "battlescopes," visitors on the Nauticus balcony can focus on the ship at one of 12 points, which magically will give way to a video presentation showing how that particular weapons system functions. The view will include details below deck as well as some operations, such as the firing of the guns, that otherwise might be difficult for a ship to do while tied up in downtown Norfolk.

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