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Welcome Home Sailors: Battleship Wisconsin Holds Biannual Reunion

By: Megan Roche

For many, stepping aboard her decks again is a tearjerking moment. The Battleship Wisconsin hosted her crew well during World War II, the Korean War, and the Gulf War, and many of her former crewmembers come back bi-annually to celebrate the vessel she was then and the place she has now become.

Hosted by the USS Wisconsin Association, The 2022 annual reunion took place from September 28-October 2, 2022, at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel. Approximately 200 former crewmembers attended the celebration, spanning all three generations of veterans who served, along with hundreds of family members in tow. The 2022 reunion also marked the first reunion since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Events of this year’s reunion included a steel beach picnic, a shipmate workday, ice cream social, silent auction, gala, dinner cruise, and day trips to nearby Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. Shipmates also gathered throughout the week on their own to enjoy time with former company mates. 

Basil Figliano was on board the Wisconsin during the Gulf War. The 2022 reunion was the first one he’s ever attended. He served on board as a third-class fire controlman, where he helped fire the 16-inch turret guns. He remembers his time in the service with nothing but pride and joy for both him and his country. He felt the same sense of pride during the reunion weekend. 

“This is a second family, all these guys that you served with and who served before you, you are bonded for life. As I got older, my service meant more to me. When I first got out, I said ‘I’m done, see ya,’ and now I’ve grown more of an attachment to what I did and who I served with. I realize more so what I had and what I did,” Basil says with tears in his eyes. 

For older veterans, the reunion allows for showcasing the battleship to grandchildren and great grandchildren. Dominic Menta stepped aboard the decks of USS Wisconsin in 1952. As a photographer, he helped capture any and all moments aboard the ship, from the mundane day to day operations to special events. He recalls the moment when he first walked up the gangway.

“When I first went aboard the ship, I was not familiar with the Navy or ships or anything. The only thing I knew that went into the water was a rowboat. When I saw that big thing, I thought ‘What did I get myself into?’ As soon as I walked up the gangway and stepped on deck, I felt the hair on my arms stand up and a voice in my head said, ‘Welcome aboard son, I’ll take care of you.’”

Those words still hit him every time he comes home to Norfolk and steps on her decks again. 

Menta has attended every reunion since they started bi-annually back in the 1990s. 

Former crewmembers are not the only people who enjoy the reunions. For spouses, siblings, children, and grandchildren, this is a special moment to watch their loved ones interact with the people they served with. Irma Hooker, wife of BJ Hooker who served on the Wisconsin from 1989-1994, was dating BJ back during his service days. The high school sweethearts remained in contact through letters and the rare phone call while BJ was on the gunline. 

When news spread of the reunion this year, the Hookers weren’t sure if they could attend. Irma took plans into her own hands and booked the hotel before BJ even knew what was happening. Irma understood how important it was to reunite BJ with his former Navy mates.

“This weekend has been so meaningful, almost borderline making me want to cry. To sit back and see them going back in time, to see them looking at the ship, going down the hallways that they crossed daily, you can just tell it’s a timestamp of their life. This is the biggest group of them to come together since their time in the Navy, and they have all picked up right where they left off,” Irma said. 

Throughout the weekend, Irma noted, BJ often thanked her for making sure he didn’t miss out on the opportunity to attend the reunion. As veterans and their families departed after the five-day extravaganza, many of them felt a sense of reconnection with other servicemembers and a renewed sense of pride with their Naval service. 

For the vast age range who attended the annual reunion, pride was prevalent throughout the weekend. Whether it was a first time visit since the end of their service or a frequent visitor, the feeling of patriotism and joy could be felt by all around. The countdown to the reunion in 2024 is on!

While the reunion honors the service of Wisconsin sailors, so do Nauticus’ staff and volunteers on her decks on a daily basis. In addition to self-guided and guided tours, Nauticus offers a plaque program that provides the opportunity to commemorate, memorialize, or celebrate your veteran or loved one throughout the battleship. Plaques start at $250. All monies raised go directly toward the restoration, preservation, and interpretation of the Battleship Wisconsin