Friday, June 30, 2006

A look inside the U.S.S. Intrepid...

A Ship's Belly, a Nation's Strength BY BRENDAN MINITER Wall Street Journal Friday, June 30, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT Most visitors to the U.S.S. Intrepid, the vintage World War II aircraft carrier docked on the west side of Manhattan, come to hear combat stories--how the ship survived five separate kamikaze attacks--or to see some of the neat modern warplanes now parked on its flight deck. But when I got the opportunity this week to visit the carrier, I had something else in mind. I wanted to get down into the belly of the floating war machine and see what few visitors have been allowed to see during the 2 1/2 decades that it has been on public display: the machinery that propelled this giant halfway around the globe to project American power first against the Japanese Imperial Empire and then, two decades later, against the North Vietnamese. In the 230 years since America's founding, mechanical know-how has helped the nation to defend liberty abroad and at home, from the fortifications George Washington used during the Revolution to drive the British out of Boston to the railroads shuffling federal troops during the Civil War and the B-17 "Flying Fortresses" that helped win World War II. Along the way, America has also turned out some pretty nifty war machines. Chief among them has to be the U.S.S. Intrepid--the keel of which was laid just one week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was launched less than two years later, on Dec. 3, 1943, and saw action in October 1944, in the largest naval engagement in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, helping win control of the Philippine Islands. The Intrepid took a pounding during the war. At Leyte, two kamikaze attacks engulfed the ship's midsection in flames and smoke. Visitors today can see photos of the Intrepid taken at a point in the battle when many thought she was headed for the bottom of the sea. Twice during the war the Intrepid was so badly damaged that it had to return to port for extensive repairs. In February 1944, a torpedo smashed the ship's rudder and the crew rigged up a sail in the lower decks to steer the way back to Pearl Harbor. The price of liberty is not only eternal vigilance but also a whole lot of elbow grease. And Middle America has had plenty to spare. In World War II, it was the farm boys used to tinkering with tractors and combines who proved adept at repairing tanks in the field, when their German counterparts often abandoned theirs. Today a generation of videogame-playing GIs maintain computer systems that run the modern war machines in Iraq's deserts. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum's president, Bill White, offered me a warm welcome. "I've never been down there," he admitted as we prepared to descend a steep set of stairs. Deep in the lower decks there are two engine rooms, four boiler rooms and pipes heading every which way. Few of them are in the kind of shape that the Navy would demand before setting out to sea. It's hard to maintain a ship, Mr. White notes, without thousands of sailors plugging leaks, painting bulkheads and combating rust. There are standing pools of water in the deep recess of the hull. Gavin "Shippy" Shephard, a Guiana-born immigrant who knows just about every nook and cranny of the boat, says the biggest problem isn't water seeping in from the Hudson River but pipes that drain water into the ship rather than out of it. There are so many running through the ship that plumbers installing new sinks and other fixtures are prone to connect drains to the wrong pipes. That's one reason why the Intrepid is now rumored to be heading to a dry-dock for repairs. Mr. White won't comment on this, except to say that "all will be revealed" within the next week or two. But the ship is in pretty good shape considering that it has been sitting here for nearly 25 years. In 1976, real-estate magnate Zachary Fischer decided to rescue the Intrepid from the scrap heap and paid $25 million to have it brought to New York and set up as a museum. Today the museum spends $17 million a year on overhead and millions more on capital projects to keep the ship afloat and full of exhibits for 700,000 annual visitors. The Intrepid also raises money through its Fallen Heroes Fund to help wounded servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families, and is building a $40 million physical rehabilitation center in San Antonio. One soldier who visited the Intrepid recently had just returned from Iraq, where he had lost his left eye, part of his right hand, most of his left arm and his right leg. He came to express his gratitude to the Intrepid family for helping him. But Mr. White doesn't think that any thanks are necessary. Maintaining the ship, supporting troops returning from combat and reminding Americans that freedom isn't easily defended, he says, "is a duty."

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