NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — To some it’s just a Hampton Roads tourist attraction, but to others the Battleship Wisconsin means so much more.
Operations Manager Keith Nitka oversees day-to-day operations on Battleship Wisconsin, which is berthed at Nauticus in Downtown Norfolk. But 23 years ago, Nitka called the Wisconsin home when he served in the Gulf War.
It’s rare to walk around Battleship Wisconsin and not run into Nitka.
“The one thing I really enjoy about my job is I get to talk to people about my ship,” said Nitka.
Battleship Wisconsin is the last battleship built by the United States Navy. She is the 4th of the Iowa Class, turns 80 years old in April, and served in three wars, World War Two, the Korean War and the Gulf War. That’s where Nitka saw action.
“I worked in the navigation department, I’m a quarter master by trade,” said Nitka. “I was transferred here in March of 1990 looking forward to a Mediterranean cruise, but then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we ended up going to the Persian Gulf.”
Nitka spent eight months in the Persian Gulf and was there for Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
“I watched the 16 inch guns go off from the pilot house. I watched us fire tomahawk missiles,” said Nitka.
But it’s through his time here on the ship, that his memories of the service come to light.
“There are places that I go and oh I remember talking to McGee about this here or I remember talking to Lt. Ralston about that there and I have these stories that just pile up in my head,” said Nitka.
From the place he laid his head at night, to the exact spot where he stood each day to help navigate the ship, to steering the ship from inside the citadel. Nitka says at the time, though, as a 20-year-old sailor, he didn’t appreciate the ship’s history as much as he does now.
“As I got older and people would ask me about my time in the service and I’d say I was on the Battleship Wisconsin during Desert Storm,” said Nika. People would reply, “You were on the Battleship Wisconsin?! What was it like to be on a battleship?!”
“It was those conversations that got me thinking about what I was doing, where I was,” said Nitka.
Nitka said he loves sharing stories of the ship with visitors from near and far, and even with other veterans, those who served with him and those who came before.
“You walk where these men have walked and you do the things these men have done, you get a better perspective and a better appreciation for it,” said Nitka.
He also gets to relive memories with those who may have been on the ship at the same time as him, but might’ve been in a different spot. Nitka says he vividly remembers a time that an unknown aircraft was flying overhead and he heard the words “brace for impact.”
“I was at the time a second class petty officer and there’s an E-3 standing next to me in the chart house and he looks at me and has this look of absolute dread and fear on his face like we are about to die and I said just stand on your toes, get on the balls of your feet and stand on your toes and we’ll be okay, we’ll be okay and then the jet passes,” said Nitka.
It’s a perspective that Nitka says makes him a better tour guide and a better supervisor as he passes on his first hand knowledge of his time on-board.
“The Navy holds a special place in my heart and Battleship Wisconsin is my home, so working here is just a bonus, a treat,” said Nitka.
For information about visiting the Battleship Wisconsin for a tour, click here.