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From Veteran to Employee

Working in the museum that I once called my Home 

by Keith Nitka, Battleship Operations Manager

My parents always said: “Get a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” 

In 1987 I joined the U.S. Navy right after High School. Early in 1990 I received orders to the USS Wisconsin (BB-64) and as a twenty-year-old young man, I found myself in Desert Storm aboard her decks. Late in 2018 I was hired by the city of Norfolk and I started my journey as a crewmember of Battleship Wisconsin once again. 

My name is Keith Nitka and today I am the Battleship Operations Manager on board the Battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus in Downtown Norfolk Virginia. In 1990 I was a 3rd class, soon to be 2nd class Quartermaster in the United States Navy and going to my second command. The command was the WWII era Battleship, the USS Wisconsin. As a twenty year old, what I saw was just another ship. A cold piece of steel that I would call home until I would transfer to my next duty station. I didn’t realize that I was standing on a piece of history. A ship intertwined in American Naval history and history that I would soon be part of while a crewmember.  

After the Wisconsin became a museum ship and was berthed at Nauticus, I would take my family to visit Colonial Williamsburg as well as Bush Gardens on summer vacations and sneak a visit to see my old ship. At first it was only the exterior of the ship that you could visit, no going inside. I would spend hours just walking on her teak deck and telling stories about “when I was in the Navy…” the kids would ask their mother “how much longer”, “I want to go swimming” and my wife would explain that this is a special place for me and ask them to try to be patient.  Then one year we went and the inside was open in some areas and I got to see my rack, my bed in Navy jargon. What a sight, there it was, my bed so many years ago. No matter where the ship pulled into port, be it Norfolk Va. or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, that was my bed! The personal space that I could call my own and is 28 inches wide by 80 inches long and 19 inches tall. New memories flooded my mind and opened up the next installment of “when I was in the Navy… stories. After hours that seemed like brief minutes to me we would leave and on the drive back to Williamsburg I would talk to my wife about how neat it could be if I could work at Nauticus.

I got a part time job on board the USS New Jersey (a sister ship of Wisconsin) as a tour guide there. It allowed me to speak with people about the Battleships and reminisce about my Navy days. As the years passed and my children got older, my wife and I looked at retirement on the horizon and made future plans with retirement in mind. One day in September of 2018 for some reason I was looking at the Norfolk City website and found myself looking at a job posting. The posting was for a Maintenance Mechanic II position with the cityworking at the Battleship. I can do that job, I thought, Its very similar to what I do now and have done in the past. I jokingly texted my wife that this position was open and I wanted to apply. She texted me back, and what I read made my jaw drop, “I think you should do it” she had written and so I did.

A few months later I accepted an offer and my wife and I made plans to move here to Virginia instead of to retire. The first two or three weeks were very surreal for me. I had been a crewmember, then for many years I was a tourist and now I am working on the Battleship again, helping to restore her to her former glory. I was told of the plans that were underway for the 75th anniversary coming up and there was a lot of work to be done and a short time to get it done in. I jumped in and with the help of staff at the Battleship as well as individual volunteers and volunteer groups of active duty Sailors; we got the workload accomplished. It is a never ending process in maintenance but very rewarding. I especially enjoy working with active duty Sailors. The majority of the young men and women I meet weren’t even born when I was walking these decks and I am often reminded of the dialogue in the movie “The Sand Pebbles” between Candace Bergen and Steve McQueen. Candace Bergen tells her new acquaintance, Steve McQueen, who’s portraying a Sailor, that her brother was in the Navy, during the war. Steve McQueen responds with, “…it ain’t your brother’s Navy.”  My Navy, almost thirty years ago now, was very different than today’s. We still have the same traditions in place of course but it’s a different world with a different outlook on the world. 

Just recently, I got a promotion! I am now the Battleship Operations Manager and in a nutshell I get to talk to visitors about the Battleship Wisconsin and my time onboard the Battleship. I get to explain to people what it was like to be a Battleship Sailor and I get to keep the memories of the Sailors and Marines that served aboard 64 different Battleships alive. It is an honor and privilege for me to do this and I give the deepest thanks to my wife and family for agreeing to the opportunity that I have been given.  

Don’t tell my supervisor, but I haven’t worked a day since I started working here!