By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. U.S. Navy Retired) Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
As the sun set over San Pedro, California, homeport of U.S. battleships between WWI and WWII, I stood underneath the center barrel of the aft 16” gun turret of the museum ship USS Iowa. I had the honor to address the closing banquet of the annual Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA) Conference on the fantail of a historic battleship in what was certainly the most awesome backdrop for a speech anytime in my 37 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy.
My primary message to the HNSA leadership was one of great gratitude from the U.S. Navy for their incredible work to preserve these historic ships and the memory of those who served and sacrificed aboard them for our nation and the other nations. The U.S. Navy takes its history and heritage very seriously. However, the Navy recognizes that its primary mission, and the one in which it cannot fail, is to protect and defend the people of the United States and our allies today, and to be prepared to meet the increasingly sophisticated threats of the future. This is a hugely expensive task, and the money the Navy spends on its history is therefore very limited. So, the role HNSA ships play is critical – their ships remind the American people how important the freedom of the sea is to our way of life. HNSA ships remind the American people about the historic and ongoing threats to that way of life. HNSA ships remind the American people about the valor and sacrifice of those who fought and died at sea to preserve our freedom. Preserving and maintaining these historic ships, like active duty ships, is very expensive, but HNSA makes great use of the private funds raised to do this;these great ships would have been scrapped long ago but for HNSA’s dedicated efforts. And the U.S. Navy is thankful.
Did you know, there are 188 historic ships from 13 nations under the HNSA umbrella?
Another part of HNSA’s mission is to inspire future generations to service in the navies of their nations. During my time with their leadership, I wanted to let them know that at least in one case they were extremely successful. This image of a young boy and his father was taken aboard the museum ship USS North Carolina in Wilmington in August 1964. The kid in the picture is me. The year after this photo, we visited the USS Alabama and USS Texas and I was hooked. Of all the things my family did on our annual vacations none were as memorable or awe-inspiring as those battleships, and I remain convinced those vacations played a major role in my desire to serve and be part of the history of the U.S. Navy.I could not have asked for a better venue to deliver my messages than the USS Iowa, a highly decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War, brought back into service at the height of the Cold War in the late 1980’s. The ship was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt, having transported him to major WWII conferences, and as a result was the only U.S. Navy ship fitted with a bathtub. FDR also shared his stateroom with the skipper’s dog, and ship’s mascot Vicky (short for Victory) claimed to be the most “well-travelled dog in US Navy history” and the first Navy dog to set foot in Japan at the end of WWII. Had FDR lived to the end of the war, it is possible that Iowa would have been accorded the honor of serving as the ship for the Japanese surrender.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a broader series in which Director Cox will blog about his experience with HNSA and the value and importance of historic ships.