Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Submarine plans are on course for Maritime Museum

By Kristopher Wenn
December 04, 2005

Blueprints from National Archives surface in Manitowoc.

MANITOWOC -- Talk to Gerald Pilger, 81, of Manitowoc, about the days when he worked on submarines for the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company during World War II and he will say the keys in building the subs were the ship-engineering drawings or blueprints.

The drawings were guides showing builders how to construct vessels piece-by-piece until the 28 subs built here were finished war machines, a number of which were used in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

"I worked as a shipbuilder helper for the company and built the first eight of those ships," he said. "I took the 18th to war and had three successful combat patrol missions."

Shipbuilding was a skill that began with understanding the layout of the ship and reading the drawings' patterns in the mind, before the era of computerized design, he said.
The days of submarine building in Manitowoc may have passed, but the Wisconsin Maritime Museum has received one more piece of that history.

In November, drawings used to build 28 fleet submarines in the freshwater shipyard along the shores of the Manitowoc River arrived at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum from the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C.

"We are known to be one of the largest repositories for World War II artifacts in the U.S. and we have the facilities to store such items," said Bill Thiesen, curator at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. "We are considered a leader, so it was a done deal."

It is the museum's turn to take care of the drawings after years of trading hands between the submarine designers, builders and library archivists.

An affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution helped the museum's chances of becoming a suitable repository to preserve the drawings for research after personnel at the National Archives realized there was no longer space for the documents. The archives keep 2 percent of the drawings while the other 98 percent is stored at the museum, he said.

"In this case we got permission to send the plans because the museum had a strong interest in housing them," said Keith Kerr, archives specialist at the National Archives.

Kerr estimated the drawing collection, which weighs more than 1,200 pounds, consists of nearly 3,000 items. The drawings, sometimes called "linens" because of the print's linen-like material, range from large-scale designs to prints of the nuts and bolts of the vessels, he said.

During the war, one set of the plans was located at the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company and back-ups were secretly stored inside the Rahr Malting Plant in the event the shipyard was attacked, Thiesen said.

"All the prints were designed by the Electric Boat Company in Groton (Conn.) and sent to Manitowoc for production, which served as another shipyard to build submarines. The ships were sent down the Mississippi River on barges before heading out for battle," said Bill Flanagan, member of the Submarine Force Library in Groton, Conn.

The future of the prints, says Thiesen, is "on hold."

Rather than open the boxes and sort through the drawings, the prints will remain stored in the museum's off-site facility until the museum receives grant funding for the cost of properly handling, cataloguing and researching them.

"We'll need extra help once it comes time to catalogue and organize the prints," he said.

The museum is seeking grants from the National Park Service and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency in charge of assisting libraries and museums with collections.

Eventually, Thiesen envisions using a small percentage of the drawings for an exhibition. The remainder would be used for research, information, and preservation. A library archive housing the drawings will be off-limits, but the public can view prints if they've identified which ones they want to see.

The U.S. Navy stored the prints, official government documents, for 25 years after the submarine fleet was discontinued in the 1970s, Kerr said. The drawings were then transferred to the National Archives from the U.S. Navy. Before the museum was allowed to receive the drawings, the National Archives had to de-accession the prints – a process that officially takes the prints out of the possession of the National Archives and into the museum, he said.


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