“When I got this boat in 2000, the first thing I had to do was put windows in the main-deck salon. Casinos don’t have windows – guess they don’t want customers distracted.” Carl Marshburn and I were in the pilot house of the 156-foot Henrietta III. With the last line taken in, Carl gave a long blast on the ship’s horn as we pulled away from Wilmington’s river walk.
Henrietta III once plied the Mississippi with 330 slot machines. It has the classic wedding-cake profile of a riverboat with the two stacks amidships crowned with black tiaras. But no paddle-wheel churns white water at the stern, no wood-burning boilers throw out a trail of smoke.
As the ship swung to head down river, his son Daren took the helm and shifted control to the starboard wing of the bridge. Carl put on a microphone to begin his narration for those onboard for the lunch cruise. Here, the Cape Fear River widens, making a natural harbor that became a port and later chartered as the city of Wilmington, North Carolia, in 1739.
Passing the decommissioned USS North Carolina – it’s at a pier, but sits on the river bottom – Carl said it was the first of a new class of battleships that joined the U.S. Fleet at the start of World War II. At its commissioning in 1941, this ship was called the world’s greatest sea weapon.
When the USS North Carolina entered Pearl Harbor, a few months after Japan’s surprise attack on Hawaii in 1941, sailors
and shipyard workers lined the shore, the docks and the decks of ships to cheer her arrival. Passing the capsized and sunken ships along battleship row, the ship’s crew stood silently and saluted. They were saluting the crew of USS Arizona who were still onboard, entombed in the sunken ship where they remain to this day.
The arrival of the USS North Carolina was a shot in the arm for the men at Pearl Harbor. Historians have called that day
a turning point in the morale of the Pacific Fleet. In the months following, all but two of those battleships were restored to duty, and later, with the USS North Carolina, took the war across the Pacific and to Japan’s home islands.
The USS North Carolina participated in every major campaign in the Pacific. The Japanese claimed that they had sunk it six times, but saw how wrong they where when it dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.
The battleship was decommissioned two years later. Schoolchildren statewide saved it from being scrapped by holding fundraisers to bring the ship here to Wilmington. Now a World War II Memorial, open to the public, it remains as a relevant reminder of that war and the Americans who fought it.
Carl said that during World War II, 243 liberty ships were made in a shipyard that was here back then. “For a while, they launched a ship every three days.
“German submarines would lie in wait off Cape Fear and the Outer Banks, hoping to pick off newly built liberty ships. They never did. But subs were successful in torpedoing several merchant ships and tankers.”
One German U-boat, the U-85, was sunk off the Cape in 1942. On the bottom at 100 feet, this death-dealing weapon system of a one-time hated enemy is relevant now only to scuba divers on summer weekends.
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]