From the Stars and Stripes archives

The Wisconsin: A big ship that carries a big stick in Gulf

The USS Wisconsin in the Persian Gulf, 1990.



ABOARD THE USS WISCONSIN — When one of America's premier battleships entered the Persian Gulf on Aug. 25, naval firepower in the region doubled, said Vice Adm. Henry H. Mauz Jr., commander of Navy forces in the Mideast.

To watch the Wisconsin's 16-inch guns fire is to understand why.

A blast from one of the guns rattles the whole ship. It shakes flakes of paint loose and sends dust filtering down through the decks. A violent orange ball of flame issues from the barrel behind a five-foot long shell weighing nearly a ton, and seven miles and several seconds later, the shell explodes in a geyser of water.

"Our 16-inch guns project power ashore like no other naval guns in the world," said the Wisconsin's skipper, Capt. David S. Bill III. The 16-inch guns of America's four Iowa-class battleships are the largest active guns in any navy.

The 47-year-old Wisconsin underwent a full overhaul in 1988, receiving the latest anti-ship missiles and close-in defense systems to supplement its big guns.

In the Gulf, the ship's mission "is to establish the Navy's presence and act as a deterrent" to war, Bill said. "We're spending a lot of time training — shooting the guns, exercising damage control as if we took a hit, doing underway (fuel) replenishment" with other ships. But Bill admitted that the defensive stance could change, and "... if we're called to fire in anger, we will."

To do so the Wisconsin carries nine of the main guns fixed to three rotating turrets. The 67-foot-long guns can each fire two shells a minute at ranges up to 23 miles.

Fired at once, the nine guns can launch more than 11 tons of ordnance at a target, said Master Chief Petty Officer Robert Eisenberg, 41, who supervises the gun operations.

"It would take all the planes from two aircraft carriers flying bombing missions around the clock to equal the amount of ordnance we can fire" in one volley, Eisenberg said.

The Wisconsin's targets could be an Iraqi tank column, anti-aircraft batteries, missile sites or other enemy weapons or positions within reach, said Eisenberg, from San Antonio, Texas. Gun crews aboard the warship take fire missions from Marine Corps forward observers who spot targets on the battlefield, he said. The ship can also launch a remote-controlled plane with a video camera inside to pinpoint targets.

The battleship's 2,700-pound, armor-piercing rounds can penetrate 30 feet of steel-reinforced concrete, while the 1,900-pound high-explosive shells can blast craters 20-feet deep and 35-feet wide, Eisenberg said. In addition to 50-caliber guns, the ship carries 12 five-inch guns that can propel 50-pound shells nine miles at a rate of 15 rounds per minute, per gun, against air or shore targets. The Wisconsin has also been fitted with Tomahawk and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

To protect the ship and its 1,500 crewmen, 12-inch tick armor encases the hull. The turret faces of the main guns boast 17-inch armor, and 17 inches of armor also surrounds the ship's bridge.

"This ship was built to go toe-to-toe with the (Japanese) "Yamato" class battleships of World War II," said Lt. C. H. Ramsay, a turret officer from Coastesville, Pa. "There are 465 long-tons (British measurement equal to 2,250 pounds) of armor on each turret," said Ramsay.

In World War II, the Wisconsin took part in the amphibious landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa as well as the reoccupation of the Philippines.

"In the Korean War, the ship took a hit from a 155mm shell that didn't even penetrate her 2-inch armor" near the deck, Ramsay said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Bret Bowman of the USS Wisconsin scans the Persian Gulf for mines.