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Troop's ship trip provides inside look at naval warfare

The Scouts bunk on the USS Alabama, a retired battleship. The experience was fun and informative, members say.

By GREG WILLIAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- During World War II, men lived aboard the USS Alabama under the harsh conditions of war.

But for a local Boy Scout troop, sleeping two nights aboard the 35,000-ton battleship over Memorial Day weekend was just "cool."

"It was, like, so cool," said Daniel Merens of Pinellas Park Troop 320. "The first night we slept in the jail, the brig."

The ship, berthed in Mobile, Ala., is a memorial to those who served during World War II, and areas have been reserved to accommodate overnight stays by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Eleven boys slept in cramped quarters in the steel belly of the warship, squeezed into tightly stacked bunks with thin mattresses, and sometimes ate cafeteria food. But still, compared with the troop's usual tent camps in the suffocating Florida heat, life aboard the Alabama must have seemed downright cushy.

After all, 12-year-old Daniel said, the battleship had air-conditioning. And the bunks were better than the ground.

"You aren't sleeping on the ground and you don't have roots in your back. It was a real good experience," said Daniel, the troop's assistant senior patrol leader.

"It's a little different than having a tent that may leak and getting flooded compared to having a ship that you know it isn't going to leak," said 15-year-old senior patrol leader Preston Cottrell, adding that it's one thing to be lulled to sleep in the woods by a chorus of crickets and another to be awakened in the middle of the night by a cacophony of crickets.

Aside from the occasional slamming of bulkhead doors, the ship was quiet, he said.

Daniel's father, David, is troop committee chairman. He said the trip was about the boys having fun and learning the sacrifices veterans made for their country.

The boys raised $1,100 during a six-month period so 10 troop members and one Cub Scout could visit the battleship memorial. They also toured a submarine, saw military aircraft spanning six decades and visited a nearby Civil War fort and museums.

It was the farthest the troop has traveled, Preston said, and the troop hopes to go on other high-adventure trips.

"We had a great time that weekend. It probably was the best trip we've ever been on as a troop," he said. "Most of us had never been on a battleship, much less sleep on one. We had the whole ship to ourselves. It was huge. That's what we did a lot, just look around the ship. We kept finding things new to us every time we looked."

Even though his stay aboard the Alabama wasn't exactly "roughing it," Daniel said he could appreciate the hardships endured by its wartime sailors.

The ship's theater taught him about the scourge of the kamikaze. And the ship's big turrets, bristling with 16-inch guns, made a lasting impression on the 12-year-old. He said he could imagine the noise when all the guns erupted and how crowded the ship must have been.

"It's pretty neat how all those people served in this ship," he said. "And it's kind of huge, but with all those people I can imagine that it was probably cramped."

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