Battleship Missouri’s
Overnight Encampment Program

By:  Mary Young
Oahu Island News

U.S.S. Missouri, the last and greatest of the Iowa-class battleships, rests proudly at anchor in Pearl Harbor. A symbol of the Allied victory in World War II, the “Mighty Mo” faces the submerged remains of the U.S.S. Arizona – the bows of the two ships just 300 feet apart. Every day, about 1,000 visitors shuttle across Ford Island Bridge to visit the Battleship Missouri Memorial, as it is now known. They come to hear sea stories, stand on the deck where the peace treaty was signed and try to imagine what it was like to live on board.

Late on Friday afternoon, as the last shuttle bus leaves, life aboard the Missouri becomes a reality for participants in the Battleship Missouri Overnight Encampment Program.

The program, open to Scouts and school groups ages 10 to 18, combines an on-site experience of history and sea tradition with the fun of a campout. Between 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. the next morning, when they disembark, the youngsters become part of the ship’s crew – eating in the mess hall, sleeping in berthing, and taking part in shipboard activities and drills. “They learn without knowing it,” said Steve Kooiman, the Association’s education manager. “And they get a new respect for what these guys had to put up with.”

Kooiman is an affable man in his late 30s, a retired Navy signalman chief who came to work for the U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association about a year ago. He started as a part-time tour guide. “I’ve always had a love of history, especially World War II naval history,” he said. “Then this education job came up, and I thought if I enjoy giving tours, I’ll really enjoy this. So I applied, and I was fortunate enough to get it.”

Every new tour guide interviews with Kooiman before beginning training. People skills are essential, he said, but he looks for specific personality traits in guides who accompany the encampment program. “They have to enjoy interacting with kids, and they have to have fun,” he said. “If they come in feeling that it’s a job they have to do for money, I don’t want them here at night.”

Plan of the Day

To begin, the group musters on the pier. Kooiman issues dog tags and duty assignments, and then he sets the ground rules. “I give them a safety brief and explain that we’re a museum, we’re not Disneyland,” he said. “We can have fun, but we respect the ship.” Racks are assigned and gear is stowed. Then the group takes a guided tour of the ship, including some areas that are off-limits to the public tour.

The evening schedule starts with dinner – hearty meat-and-potatoes fare – and duty assignments such as clean-up and the lowering of the flag. The crew takes part in a fire drill and activities that promote leadership and teamwork, such as a scavenger hunt and K.P. duty.

Julie Biondine attended a recent encampment as a chaperone for Oahu’s Boy Scout Troop 176.

“It was fabulous,” she said. “I mean, they kept us busy until midnight.”

Late in the evening, a movie is shown topside on the fantail. Then it’s time to hit the racks. Adults – the association requires an adult-child ratio of 1:10 – sleep on the bottom bunks. Female and male berthing are in separate areas but all of the beds are narrow and stacked three high. Kooiman said, “I’ll get them in those racks and they’ll be complaining and I say, ‘That’s why they call it service. They don’t call it ‘hey, let’s go have fun.’ They call it ‘service.’”

The crew doesn’t spend all night in the sleeping quarters, though; each participant stands watch for one hour at some time during the night.

Randy Small, an eighth-grader at Mililani Middle School, took the midnight to 1 o’clock watch. “The guide took us on a tour outside,” said Randy. “We went upstairs and we saw where they kept all the missiles and the ammunition and everything.”

Walking the Missouri’s silent decks at night makes an impression on the adults, too. Randy’s mom, Liane, said, “To see it in a different light, whereas at night everything looks different . . it was a little creepy, you know.”

Saturday starts early with reveille, breakfast, and cleanup. The crew musters once more for inspection and certificate presentations prior to “liberty call.”

History of the U.S.S. Missouri

Learning about the Mighty Mo’s unique place in history is an important part of the encampment experience. It was on the Missouri’s deck, on Sept. 2, 1945, that General Douglas MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of Japan. Missouri had played an important role in the Pacific war, notably the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The battleship was to serve in two more wars – Korea and the first Gulf War – before its final decommissioning.

One of the aft decks still bears the scars of a kamikaze attack a few months before the end of World War II. A lone pilot, coming in toward the starboard side, approached so low that the ship’s big 5-inch guns couldn’t get a shot. He was hit by a hail of smaller gunfire, but the plane slammed into the side of the ship, breaking in two and sending debris over the anti-aircraft guns. As the front half of the plane flew along the length of the ship, it dropped fuel and started a fire. The fire was quickly extinguished; the plane’s payload fell into the water, unexploded. The next day, acknowledging the Japanese pilot’s ultimate sacrifice for his country, Missouri’s Captain William M. Callaghan directed that he be buried at sea with honors.

During the Korean War, the Missouri conducted bombardment missions and other operations. Following the war, the ship was decommissioned for the first time and went to Bremerton, Wash. For the next 29 years it was a popular attraction in Bremerton, with about 100,000 visitors boarding the ship each year.

During a buildup of the fleet in the early 1980s, Missouri underwent a $475 million modernization that took two years to complete. It was recommissioned on May 10, 1986 and would go on to serve in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association

Decommissioned for the last time on March 31, 1992, the Missouri was returned to Bremerton. The famous ship was involved in one last battle, over its final destination. Groups in Bremerton, San Francisco and Honolulu campaigned with the Navy to be the battleship’s permanent home. The nonprofit U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association prevailed, and it has been the caretaker of the battleship since it arrived here in June of 1998.

Although the Mighty Mo is berthed on federal property, the association is not supported by government funding. The association pays fair market value for its pier rental and all utilities. Expenses are covered by revenues derived from daily admissions, retail and concession sales and donations.

The overnight program was made possible with an initial grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Now the program pays for itself, according to Kooiman. Rates are $59 per child, $69 per adult. (Kamaaina rates are available) A minimum of 40 participants are required for an encampment.

Kooiman hopes to expand the program to include adult groups. “My goal is that everybody that wants to do it will have an opportunity to do it,” he said. The adult program would be designed for corporate staff members to develop team building and camaraderie.

Liane Small agrees that the program should be offered to adult groups. “I think everyone should do it,” she said. “It’s just an awesome experience, just to be in a historical ship like that.”

For her son and other Scouts, “It’s something they won’t forget because they get the dog tag and the certificate at the end of the program,” she said. “They can look at the certificate and remember, yeah, they slept on the Missouri.”