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Voyage of Discovery
Voyage of Discovery
Voyage of Discovery

A shipshape USS Intrepid reopens to the public

By Mark Yost

Nov. 8, 2008

The USS Intrepid, the World War II-era aircraft carrier that has served as a floating museum on Manhattan's West Side waterfront since 1982, was much in need of a makeover. After nearly two years in dry dock, a vastly improved Intrepid reopens to the public Saturday, just in time for Veterans Day.

Visitors now enter the 900-foot Essex-class carrier, one of the so-called fast carriers, through a large atrium on the ship's main hangar deck. A large video screen shows images of the ship in war and in peace. There's also a diagram of the Intrepid that shows where you are and what there is to see, as well as a hole in the deck that lets visitors see seven decks down into the bowels of the ship.

From there, visitors can go forward to the Fo'c'sle, or forecastle, the interior front of the ship. There's a refurbished 245-seat theater that features a 16-minute movie on the history of the Intrepid; never-before-seen crews' quarters; and the Fo'c'sle itself, home to the ship's anchor chain -- each link weighing about 250 pounds.

The flight deck has been redone, as well. Fifteen of the ship's 30 aircraft have been repainted in historically accurate colors and reorganized by service. The F-4N Phantom in the Marine Corps display actually flew as part of 1980's failed attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. Its right wing tip has a red-and-black stripe, used to distinguish it from the F-4s the Iranians had purchased under the shah. There's also an F3D Skyknight, a Korean War-era plane that was painted black so it could hide amid B-29 formations at night and sneak up on MiG-15s that were sent up to attack the bombers. Not far away is a MiG-15 that Aircraft Restoration Manager Eric Boehm bought on eBay for "a coupla grand." It's decked out in the North Korean paint scheme that it would have had during the Korean War.

"That plane," he said, pointing to the Skyknight, "theoretically shot down the MiG."
And there's an impressive interactive section below decks for kids, where they can learn hands-on about ballast, how ships signal each other, and how sailors lived aboard ship. The best display here features astronaut gloves (Intrepid was used to recover two spacecraft). Wearing the bulky gloves, visitors must unscrew bolts, tie shoelaces and close zippers. Not an easy task, but lots of fun.

The vast majority of the museum's reorganization has taken place in the main exhibit area, which runs the length of the hangar deck. It is filled with panels and artifacts that take visitors from the Intrepid's keel-laying in December 1941 to its final decommissioning from active service in March 1974. The rotating exhibit space features more than 100 artifacts -- ship's logs, uniforms, diaries -- from private collections, museums and veterans who served on the Intrepid.
The ship actually had two active-duty lives. It served in World War II in the Pacific, was decommissioned, and then was put back into service in 1954 with the coming of the jet age. Models in 1-to-72 scale show the ship in these two configurations. During World War II the ship had a straight flight deck, a tiger-striped paint job, and more than 100 antiaircraft guns. When it came back into service in 1954, it had an angled flight deck so that it could launch and recover aircraft simultaneously; new steam catapults, the piping for which is clearly visible nearby; and the Navy's Cold War-era haze-gray color scheme.

An interactive timeline explains all this. Visitors can choose first an era and then a date and photos pop up on the screen. For instance, choose Nov. 25, 1944, and you learn that two Japanese planes struck the ship in kamikaze attacks, resulting in 69 dead and 35 injured. A photo shows the still-smoldering hole left in the flight deck.
Another interactive display shows the schematic of the Intrepid. Touch an area of the ship and it lights up. A photo explains how that part of the ship worked, where it was, etc. So if you choose "Engine Room," you learn that the Intrepid's eight boilers powered four steam turbines that produced 150,000 horsepower that could propel the ship at 32 knots, or about 37 miles per hour. Nearby is one of the ship's four propellers, which weighed 27,000 pounds each and were about 20 feet high and 10 feet across.

By far the best displays of the entire museum are the interactive cruise books. Navy ships often put together a cruise book, much like a high-school yearbook. It shows the ship's officers, various departments, and ports of call. The Intrepid's curators have wisely scanned some of these books so that visitors can actually leaf through them on an electronic display.

The 1945 cruise book, for instance, has somber photos of the devastation after a Nov. 25, 1944, crash on the flight deck and of a Japanese woman breastfeeding her child amid the rubble of Hiroshima. The Intrepid participated in relief and other support operations following Japan's surrender. But there are more lighthearted pictures, too. Among them: a liberty-call photo of a topless Ulithi barmaid.

There are also photos of the "Crossing the Line" ceremony, still performed on Navy ships today when they cross the equator. "Shellbacks," veterans who have been across before, basically spend a day torturing the "Pollywogs," the new guys.

Both veteran visitors and those stepping onboard the Intrepid for the first time will find much to transport them into the past on their voyage of discovery.

Mr. Yost is a writer based in Chicago.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.