Probably because of my experiences in a nuclear submarine engine room and nuclear power plants, I’m fascinated by engine rooms in general. And there are no better examples than the various WWII era warships parked as museums around the country. Mostly battleships, but also submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, these warships are open to the public and some allow access to their engine rooms.
Going down (or back, if in a submarine) to the engine room requires a bit of dexterity that some can’t manage. Ladders are often near vertical and often have very hard head-level obstructions poised to open up a wound on your scalp if you’re not careful in a way most people aren’t accustomed to. One doesn’t expect going down a ‘staircase’ might involve having to duck your head around or under various metal protrusions seemingly placed just so to cause injury.
But if you do enter a WWII-era engine room, you’ll find yourself immersed in a steel jungle filled with heavy duty machinery, pipes, valves, cables (wires), gauges, switches and other things less easily categorized. Drain tanks, steam turbines wrapped in insulation, reduction gears, sightglasses. Trying to figure out how it all comes together to form a propulsion train capable of moving a massive ship is a challenge even for the initiated.
The boilers burn bunker oil to boil water into steam; steam flows through large insulated pipes to the high pressure turbine and then to the low pressure turbine; the spent saturated steam is converted by the seawater-cooled condenser to water and then pumped back to the boliers to be reheated. Meanwhile, the turbines turn giant shafts that feed into reduction gears which convert the high speed rotation of the turbines to the much lower speed required for efficient operation of the propellors, which are at the end of long shafts that penetrate the ship’s hull. A battleship has four propellors. Myriad accessory equipment supports this basic operation – lube oil pumps to ensure bearings don’t fail; cooling systems to ensure parts don’t overheat; instruments to monitor all sorts of parameters such as pressure, temperature, shaft speed, tank level; electrical systems to supply pump motors, instruments, relays, etc. And much more.
The engine room also contains the turbine generators that produce electric power for the entire ship, evaporators to supply fresh water and refrigerant units for chilled water to keep the spaces cool. All this is stuffed into the four engine and boiler rooms of a battleship. One of the things that surely must come to mind while touring these spaces is how much design effort went into building one of these ships in such a way that it not only works, but works well enough to allow the ship to perform its primary mission: fight. Everything in the engine room is designed to serve the ship’s weapons systems and the crew that operates them, plus get the ship where it needs to be to fight the battles. Large warships are marvels of engineering.
I’ve toured five battleships: USS Alabama, USS North Carolina, USS New Jersey, USS Texas, USS Wisconsin
One cruiser: USS Olympia
One aircraft carrier: USS Yorktown
Three submarines: USS Drum, USS Clagamore, USS Becuna
Of all the WWII ships and boats (submarines should be referred to as boats, not ships), I like the Alabama and the Yorktown best, simply because their engine rooms were open to unescorted visitors. All but ignoring the rest of the ship, I’ve spent hours in each engine room, contemplating, taking photos of stuff no one but me photographs. Down on my knees looking for steam traps, peering around corners along cable trays, up close to equipment label plates, tracing steam lines, flipping switches, staring at valve operator gauges, I’m interested in the unglamorous details. The things, actually, that bring back memories of my time on the submarine. You’d be surprised how much similarity there is between a nuclear sub built in the ’60s and a WWII battleship.
Contrast that sort of experience with ships where engine room access is restricted or non-existent. Such as my recent visit to the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia. An Iowa class ship, the Wisconsin is apparently slightly larger than her sisters and thus has the distinction of being the largest battleship ever built by the US. Some increased length may be due to the transplanted bow that was attached after the original was severely damaged in a collision with a destroyer in the 1950’s. The donor bow came from the USS Kentucky, still being constructed in Newport News Shipyard (the Kentucky was never completed).
If you want to see the Wisconsin’s engine room, you must purchase a guided tour ticket. The Nauticus museum, where the battleship magnificently resides in downtown Norfolk and which also boasts other exhibits such as the excellent Hampton Roads Naval Museum, offers two guided tours – one to the engine room and one to the command and control centers. The extra price is worth it if you haven’t seen either. As it happened, on the day I visited I was the only one to sign up for the morning engine room tour, so it was just me, the navy veteran tour guide and his much younger assistant.
Any time two navy veterans get together in a setting like this, both have to establish their bonafides. His were evident by the fact that he was a docent on a battleship engine room tour but I learned that he was a boilerman, so would know his stuff. I volunteered that I was a reactor operator on a cold war era nuclear submarine and thus knew quite a bit about naval engine rooms. A nuclear reactor is just a high-tech way to boil water into steam. After that, the other stuff is pretty much the same. Plus I’d been on several of these older warships.
Then he called me a snipe.
Hmmph. Snipe is not a term of derision, I knew, but I was not a snipe. Sailors who worked in nuclear submarine engine rooms – ‘nukes’ – were not snipes. That was either a surface ship term or a non-nuke term for engine room folk (I have no idea whether nukes on aircraft carriers called themselves snipes, but I doubt it). I told him I had never heard that term applied to a navy nuke. Ever.
Part of the reason for referring to me as a snipe was undoubtedly because he could then relate the story of how engine room sailors got to being called snipes. Seems in the early days of steam ships, the ‘engineers’ who ran the engines on navy ships were looked down upon by regular sailors and abused accordingly. Until John Snipes demanded respect for his men, didn’t get it and then proceeded to have them shut down the boilers. Steam ships don’t operate well when the boiler is cold. Respect ensued.
I’m a nuke. Not a snipe.
Anyway, after we did the bona fides thing, he launched into the tour, thankfully leaving out a lot of basic stuff he knew I knew. The three of us – him in the lead, me following, she closing doors after us – descended into one of the boiler rooms. He stuck with his script – pointing out the big pieces and running a short video next to one of the boilers. All this while I really wanted to just go off on my own. I already knew what all the big pieces were and could identify most of the little ones, too. After the boiler room tour, we went up, over and down to the engine room. The two compartment did not have direct connection, something I hadn’t realized. That’s a damage control thing – if a boiler blows or floods, it doesn’t take out the corresponding engines, which can be crossfed from another boiler thus maintaining maximum speed capability for the ship.
I did get to see some boiler room and engine room art, though. None of it seemed to date back to WWII.
The guide told me two interesting things – one I already knew but had forgotten and one I didn’t. Right next to the boiler feed area – where the ‘snipes’ work to fire the boilers according to how fast the captain or OOD wants to go (communicated via engine order telegraph from the bridge or conn and is called ‘answering bells’) , are a couple of periscopes. These scopes run all the way up to the top of the ship’s exhaust stacks and are used to gauge the proper mixture of air and oil in the furnaces. If the mix is off, the ship will be blowing black or white smoke, depending. That’s not good for boiler efficiency and it’s not good for stealth (yes, even battleships pay attention to stealth). You can see a plume of black smoke a long way off. So the snipes use the periscopes to adjust the mix to optimum. Cool.
The other thing, which I’m sure he didn’t relate to everyone because few people would grasp the concept, was how the engine room throttleman and the boiler men coordinated their efforts to answer bells despite being in different compartments. If you’ve read my post on Keeping T ave in the Green Band, you’ll recall that with a nuclear-powered engine room, such as on a submarine, answering bells was a fairly straightforward process – the throttleman opened the throttles until the shaft speed was correct for whatever bell the OOD ordered. The reactor, with a little help from the reactor operator, ramped up or down in power automatically. In a oil-fired boiler engine room, it’s not so easy. If the conn, for example, orders a speed increase from ahead 1/3 to ahead full, the boilerman sees the order come in on the engine order telegraph and must crank up the boiler using various oil nozzles so the fires burn hotter and produce more steam. That takes a while. Meanwhile, the throttleman, who also sees the ordered bell on his engine order telegraph, wants to open the main engine throttles to increase shaft and propeller speed. But he can’t do so until the boiler produces more steam – the main engine turbines want the stem at a particular pressure at all times. So how does he know when to open the throttles? He looks at the main steam pressure gauge in front of him. As the boiler ramps up, pressure goes up. As pressure goes up, he can open the throttles more, which increases turbine speed but also lowers pressure. It’s a coordinated dance between boilerman and throttleman, who are in separate compartments. They communicate by the language of steam pressure. To me, that is cool.
I mentioned above that I had visited a cruiser but it’s not a WWII era warship: the USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, which took place in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The Olympia is a ‘protected cruiser’, which mean s it has an armored deck. Moored in Philadelphia next to a WWII submarine (USS Becuna) and a gorgeous 4-master (the Moshulu), the Olympia is a national treasure and a must-see experience for anyone interested in old warships.
While the engine room was not open to visitors when I toured Olympia, the rest of the ship is quite impressive and in great shape. If you visit, you’ll see ornate fittings, lots of wood and some really spectacular 5″ guns on full display on the gun deck. The 8″ gun turrets unfortunately were also closed off.
One of my favorite photos taken on the Olympia isn’t pretty like those above. It’s a shot seeming to show one of the ship’s smaller guns (2.24 inch, according to Wikipedia) trained on an enemy warship across the river. That ship is the USS New Jersey, another of the WWII-era big battleships.
Many of the old warship museums in the US are in financial trouble, including the Independence Seaport Museum, which owns the USS Olympia and at last information was looking for a buyer. Without more money, these important relics of our past will fall into even worse disrepair than many already are, or will be abandoned for scrap. That can’t happen. I encourage everyone to support the ships – go visit them. You won’t regret it.