Author Topic: Maritime Museum celebrates 40 years USS Cobia submarine called 'iconic'  (Read 4168 times)

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MANITOWOC — When the Wisconsin Maritime Museum executive director Norma Bishop leaves work, the last thing she sees is the 312-foot-long USS Cobia docked in the adjacent Manitowoc River.

"It is the most intact, most complete World War II submarine in existence," Bishop said.

The museum is one of only about a dozen in the United States to have World War II submarines, said Karen Duvalle, education and submarine program coordinator.

The fully restored USS Cobia represents the 28 U.S. Navy submarines that were made in Manitowoc during the war and is open for tours.

"The submarine is iconic," Bishop said. "It stands for courage, hard work, sacrifice. It speaks a great deal about the character of the people of this region. We feel close to those who made the submarines and those who went to war on them. It's a living memorial. It's not just a plaque or stone monument. It's cared for by people who love it and can communicate its story to the next generation."

But the submarine is only part of the history of the museum, which this month celebrates its 40th anniversary.

"The museum is a link between the past and the present and the future," Bishop said, pointing to the museum's environmental education programs focusing on the area's lakes and streams.

"Part of the identity of the people who live here is inextricably linked to the water. The children in these environmental programs really come to an understanding of who they are and the impact of how they care for these resources because of the museum and its programs."

It was thanks to five World War II veterans, who fought as hard in the late 1960s to get a submarine for Manitowoc as they did for our country during the war, that the museum exists today, said Jerry Pilger.

The five included Pilger and Stephen Petreshock, who live in Manitowoc, and Fred Galli, James Gogats and Clifford Schaubs, who are deceased.

"Gogats and I were the ramrods. We went after that thing," said Pilger, president of the Manitowoc chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans of World War II. "We were submarine veterans and we wanted to establish a memorial to the submariners. Around the country other chapters were getting torpedoes for their memorials. That wasn't good enough for us. We went after a submarine. People thought we were crazy."

Today, submarine veterans gather regularly at the museum for reunions and share their stories with the public.

But a memorial wasn't all they were after. They wanted to acknowledge the importance of the shipbuilding industry to Manitowoc County, which got its start in the 1800s, said Pilger, a Navy veteran who worked in the shipyards before he served on the USS Jallao, the 18th submarine made in Manitowoc, from July 1944 to Aug. 1945.

"The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company was one of the biggest employers and the biggest contributors to our economy," he said. "They employed 7,000 people at one time at the shipyards."

With perseverance — their motto was "there is no such thing as 'can't be done'" — and fundraising efforts involving a commemorative Jim Beam submarine decanter, the group set its sights on the USS Cobia. The Navy submarine was stationed in Milwaukee and would soon be taken out of service and available to them.

The USS Cobia arrived in Manitowoc in August 1970 to riverbanks lined with hundreds of cheering residents and was dedicated as an International Submariners Memorial. In January 1986 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

In the meantime, the group also was working on creating a museum to go with the submarine. The museum had two locations before its current building at 75 Maritime Drive opened to the public in January 1987. It opened in June 1969 in the former Carnegie Library at 402 N. Eighth St. and then in August 1973, reopened in the former Elks Club, 809 S. Eighth St. In October 1985, ground was broken for the new $2.5 million museum.

Today, the museum has more than 60,000 square feet of space and features a replica of a 19th century maritime community, interactive exhibits, model ships and boats, an operating steam engine and a display of historic vessels and marine engines.

"When people walk into our Wisconsin Built Boat Gallery and they're surrounded by these beautifully built boats, just the realization these were all built by different boat companies right here in our own state … that is something we should really be proud of," said museum educator Wendy Lutzke, who estimated the museum receives about 40,000 visitors a year.

Among her favorite displays are the museum's one-of-a-kind model of the wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald and a 100-year-old hardhat diving suit, both underscoring the inherent dangers of the Great Lakes and the people who work on them and explore them, she said.

The newest museum displays are those designed for its littlest visitors. Children can enjoy water play as they navigate boats through a replica of Wisconsin's Great Lakes and inland waterways in the Wisconsin Waterways Room. In the Little Lakefarer's Room, they can explore an "underwater" tunnel and play nautical games.

Elinor Waege of Manitowoc is a regular museum visitor with her grandsons, Weiss Waege, 5, and his brother, Ezra, 3½.

"At first they just wanted to go to the waterworks. Now they like all parts of it. You would think that after a few times they would get bored with it, but they haven't so far," she said.

"They look through the periscope inside the museum. They enjoy the models, they enjoy seeing the bigger ships, and especially pushing the button and turning on the steam engine. When we go to the part with the (diving) suit, they always think someone's in there."

But the museum's scope doesn't stop with the walls of the building itself. Its outreach programs go to area schools, community organizations and even the Manitowoc Public School District's school forest bordering Lake Michigan, Lutzke said.