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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Centennial News Now: Tom Frezza on the The USS Recruit 

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In May 3rd's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 121, host Theo Mayer interviewed Tom Frezza, Director of Education at the National Museum of the US Navy. Mr. Frezza spoke in-depth about the USS Recruit, a full-scale battleship replica built in New York City in 1917 to encourage people to join the Navy. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity: 

Theo Mayer: This week for Remembering Veterans, as a lead up to this month's Fleet Week New York and Memorial Day, we have two stories and guests for you. First up is the story of the USS Recruit. She was a World War I era battleship that was built on land in New York's Union Square in 1917- seriously. If you were a New Yorker, as America ramped up for World War I, there was a battleship in the middle of Manhattan, with sailors, mascots, big guns and okay, she was wooden replica, but the USS Recruit was full scale and pretty darn impressive. I have pictures. To tell us about it, we're joined by Tom Frezza. Tom is the Director of Education at the National Museum of the US Navy. Tom, welcome to the podcast.

Tom FrezzaTom FrezzaTom Frezza: Well, thank you for having me, Theo.

Theo Mayer: Tom, before we get to the Recruit, tell us a little bit about the National Museum of the US Navy. Where is it, who runs it and when I go there, what do I see?

Tom Frezza: We are located in Washington DC in the Washington Navy Yard. We've been around since 1963 and we are actually part of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The Command has 10 museums all across the country, but we are the flagship museum. You can see so many great things ranging from the fighting top of off the Constitution to a US Navy railroad gun from World War I and not only are we in one building, we're actually in two. We have a Cold War gallery that tells the story of the US Navy from the Korean War to the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only do we have some great items in the buildings, but the buildings themselves are historic too. The Washington Navy Yard is where they made all of the battleship guns and our buildings took part in that construction.

Recruit 1The USS Recruit in Union SquareTheo Mayer: Let's get over to the USS Recruit. What's the story?

Tom Frezza: The Recruit was a wooden structure that was made to look like a battleship of the era and officially, it was known as USS Recruit, a "land ship" because it never went to sea. Think of it as a public relations and recruiting tool for the Navy at that point. They were able to recruit over 25,000 men into service, which is amazing. Really, at that time, New York is one of the largest population centers and you have people coming and going and would be a great place to recruit new sailors for the Navy. But the Navy was using all of their battleships and all the ships that they had, so someone came up with a great idea to build, in the middle of Union Square, this wooden mock-up of a dreadnought battleship. It had 3 turrets of 14-inch guns. While they looked real, they were actually made out of wood. They had quarters for all of the crew aboard the ship. They had just every accommodation that they needed for sailors to live aboard this ship that never went to sea.

Theo Mayer: I saw some pictures where they actually even had mascots on board and they had visitors and they did laundry. I mean, they literally operated aboard ship.

Tom Frezza: Like you said, there are tons of photos out there of this ship of all of the dignitaries who would visit. You also have some pretty famous photos of Yeoman (F)s. Those were the female sailors recruited into the Navy, something that was groundbreaking. It became a focal point in New York City during World War I. They brought people aboard, not only people who they were recruiting, but really just the general public aboard to show them what life was like for sailors at sea.

Theo Mayer: One of the things that they were doing with ships in those days was 'dazzling' them. They were painting these ships as these sort of optical art looking things, to hide them and disguise them and confuse the U boats from which direction they were moving. At one point, I saw a picture of the Recruit with dazzle on it.

Tom Frezza: If you've never seen dazzle camouflage, true to its name, it is very dazzling, but again, that's how ships were being painted at the time. When it was ordered that all ships be painted a dazzle camouflage, of course, because the Recruit was a commissioned land ship, they had to follow orders too and go with the paint scheme of the entire Navy.

Theo Mayer: That's great. After the armistice, they were going to move her, I think, to Coney Island. What happened?

Tom Frezza: After the armistice, they were planning on moving her to Coney Island as an attraction, but also as a recruiting boat too. But they decided that it would really cost too much money to move her to Coney Island, so she was broken up and parts of her structure were spread out for other projects within the Navy.

Theo Mayer: The USS Recruit, on the WWI Centennial News Podcast. Check out the links below to see pictures, and learn more about the Recruit and Fleet Week.  



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