Friday, August 26, 2005

Long But Good Article From Today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Deck Hand "T-Man" Betts coaxes visitors topside on a recent tour. (CNLR Mayor's Office Photo)


From the safety of the Arkansas River bank, landlubbers clamber through the hatch and get a firsthand look at life aboard the submarine USS Razorback.


Chelsea Betts, a jolly teenage guide on the USS Razorback, gives her flock of seven tourists a last chance to change their minds before descending into the World War II submarine that has been open to the public along North Little Rock’s riverfront since May. "The compartments are kind of small," she says. "If you’re afraid of tight spaces or don’t like hot spaces, you might not want to go. It doesn’t smell too great either." Nobody backs out. So Betts demonstrates how to get a foothold on the narrow metal ladder descending into the bowels of the Razorback — named for a species of whale, not Arkansas’ emblematic wild hog.

The vessel, centerpiece of the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, was present in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, for the Japanese surrender ceremony. It served the U.S. Navy until 1970, before being transferred to the Turkish navy and renamed the Murat Reis. An intrepid group of submarine veterans organized themselves five years ago as Razorback Base and worked with North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays to acquire the sub for landlocked Arkansas.

"For now, we’ve kept the configuration of the submarine exactly as when it was in service," says Greg Zonner, a Razorback Base stalwart and executive director of the new museum. "We didn’t cut any holes into it or change anything inside. It’s a lot more realistic than some other museum submarines, where they’ve cut the side open for easier entry. When that’s done, you lose the feel of what it’s like to go into a submarine."

A sign posted at the edge of the parking lot spells out what it takes to visit: "To tour, you must be able to climb a 14-foot ladder. Not be claustrophobic (scared of small spaces). Be able to go through a watertight door 38 inches high by 20 inches wide. Be at least 5 years old."

Visitors buy their tickets on a barge moored just to the west of the sub. Souvenirs for sale include Razorback baseball caps ($15) and T-shirts ($12 for adult sizes, $8 for kids). Both U.S. and Turkish flags are flying nearby.

Betts starts the 40-minute tour on the vessel’s deck, which sports its original teak wood from 1944, with another reality-based reminder: "This sub is 95 percent operational, so we want to make sure you don’t push any buttons or turn any knobs or pull any levers. Everything gets cranked up once a month to make sure it’s working." (Not working yet is the air conditioning or the periscope. Both are scheduled to be repaired at some point.)


One of seven young guides trained by the submarine vets, who conduct some tours themselves, Betts explains that the vessel’s exterior is painted black "because it’s harder to see that way. It would be really hard to hide in a pink or yellow submarine." Her infectious sense of humor, along with an impressive depth of knowledge for a high-schooler who’d never been on a submarine before this spring, keeps the 45-minute tour breezing along.

Once everyone is down the hatch on the steep ladder, the interior visit starts in the after torpedo room. What catches the eye, even more than the torpedo tubes, are the closely placed bunks. "This was the bunking area for at least 14 enlisted men," says Betts. "They did what was called ‘hot-racking,’ sleeping in shifts. One guy would wake up and go to work, while another would go to sleep. They slept on these thin mats. There were no sheets or pillows, because there was not enough fresh water to wash linens. If you were lucky, you had a towel to wipe off your bunk mate’s sweat. If not, you got in and got over it."

Clambering through the first of a half-dozen watertight doors, the tourists enter the maneuvering room, smallest visited compartment on the Razorback. "Lots of people think submarines run off engines," Betts says. "They actually run off batteries. The only time the diesel engine was turned on was to charge the batteries."

In the after main engine room, the temperature would have been around 125 degrees at all times, according to Betts. Happily, it’s a lot cooler than that now, thanks to whirring fans that are pinch-hitting for the idled air conditioning.

The submarine’s water supply gets an explanation in the forward main engine room: "The water came directly from the ocean and had to be distilled. They distilled 2,000 gallons a day, which sounds like a lot. But there were many needs. There wasn’t enough water for showers."

The aft battery compartment, festooned with bunks, is where the largest number of enlisted men slept. Betts points out a sleeping area nicknamed Hogan’s Alley, where the ghost of a submariner is said to lurk: "This might seem better because it’s more spacious, but it was very busy and noisy. People were always walking through and yelling in your ears. And it was always hot, because of the cooking in the galley next door."

In the galley, the group learns that the crew (totaling between 70 and 80) ate in shifts, getting 10 to 15 minutes for each meal. "The Navy always said that the submariners got the best food," Betts reports. "They loaded six months worth of food before going to sea. Canned goods would be stacked everywhere."

Everyone on a U.S. sub was a volunteer, she adds: "Back then, the Navy offered $30 a month more pay and perks like the good food and free movies. What free movies meant was a projector and a small screen hanging in the galley. You’d see the same movies lots of times in six months at sea."


Submarines like the Razorback carried no doctor or nurse. "If you got sick, you had to get over it, with no more than first-aid supplies," says Betts. "If someone died, they usually threw him into the freezer until they got home."

In the control room — "the place you’ll see the most in submarine movies," she observes — visitors can climb another ladder to peer into the conning tower, where it will be possible to look through the periscope once the hydraulics are operating. She sounds the dive alarm, setting off a braying noise that grabs attention. In full dive mode, the Razorback could be fully submerged in 30 seconds.

A corridor takes the tour past the officers’ quarters, including the captain’s snug private stateroom and the wardroom where they ate. The submarine manufactured its own oxygen, Betts says, "and you could tell it was running out when you’d strike a match and it would immediately go out."

The forward torpedo room held 16 of the Razorback’s 24 torpedoes, twice as many as its aft equivalent. In one corner is the captain’s restroom — the "head" in naval parlance. Toilet waste was flushed into a pressurized tank — not to avoid polluting the ocean, says Betts, but to avoid leaving a trail for any enemy surface ships.

"They’re talking about having me clean out the torpedo tubes, since I’m the smallest guide," she says. "But I don’t think that’s going to be happening." A dead sailor, she mentions, might have been shot from a tube if he’d asked to be buried at sea, or if there was no room for the body in the freezer, or as a diversion along with broken wood to make a pursuing enemy think the submarine had been fatally damaged.

Pointing out the compartment’s bunks, she says that seniority ruled in choosing where to sleep: "The best bunks were known as the Bridal Suite or the Honeymoon Suite. Some sailors actually slept right on the torpedoes. I don’t know why. Maybe they were so tired, they didn’t care."

And if the notion of snuggling up to a bundle of high explosives seems at least a bit loony, Betts offers this thought: "If the torpedoes exploded, everybody on the submarine was going to go anyway. You’d just be the first ones."

TOUR INFORMATION The USS Razorback submarine, located just east of the Main Street Bridge beyond the Arkansas River flood wall in North Little Rock, is open for public tours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1-6 p.m. Sundays. Adult admission is $5. It’s $3 for children 5 to 12, senior citizens 65 and older, and active military personnel. Active or retired submariners can visit for free with proof of service. Touring the submarine requires being able to climb down and up a steep ladder, and to clamber through watertight doors 38 inches high by 20 inches wide. Youngsters under age 5 are not admitted. Admission is free to the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum a bit east of the submarine. The Razorback is expected to be closed for several weeks sometime this fall while improvements are being made in shore facilities. A pending addition to the museum is a second World War II vessel, the tug USS Hoga. Due to be brought here from California, the Hoga is the last operable Navy vessel that was present at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941. For more information on visiting the USS Razorback, call (501) 371-8320; for group tours of 10 or more persons, call (501) 244-9787.

This story was published Friday, August 26, 2005

Note from AIMM Team: Don't forget the Razorback is closed tomorrow 27 August for a USS Seafox reunion.


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