Wednesday, May 17, 2006

WWII sub outfitted with 21st century gizmos at Pittsburgh museum

By Michael Cowden
May 12, 2006

PITTSBURGH - A blast jolts the submarine as a torpedo is loaded and fired at an unsuspecting destroyer, which explodes in a shower of water and debris. Virtually, that is.

Thanks to 21st century speakers and subwoofers planted under the WWII-era submarine's deck, visitors to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center can learn not only about the science behind the watercraft but also how it sounded and felt.

They can even fire a virtual torpedo or two.

"A chance like this to inject drama is just something that we ate up," said Don Marinelli, a Carnegie Mellon University drama professor and the executive producer of the university's Entertainment Technology Center. The university center collaborated with the science center to create the "Living History" exhibit that opens Friday.

From touch-activated computer screens planted in the torpedo room, the engine room, the mess deck and other main areas, visitors can select whether they want to learn more about how a certain part of the submarine works, what its history is or what part of it might be of interest to kids.

The "How It Works" section queues interactive graphics that explain in detail the science behind the diesel engines, torpedoes and other parts of the submarine. It has been a hit with the analytically minded, said Bei Yang, a CMU student who worked on the project.

Kids seem to prefer firing mock torpedoes and virtually flushing the submarine's toilets.

The multimedia kiosks are designed to supplement the exhibit, not distract visitors from it, so there is no video to watch.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the history section, which records stories from veterans who served on the USS Requin. Some recorded their memories live, others sent in letters that were read and recorded by CMU students.

Michael Hemming, a former machinist on the USS Requin, remembers waiting and listening, terrified, as a 900-pound torpedo approached the submarine. The Requin had fired a live round during a training exercise but had missed its target, only to see the torpedo boomerang back.

"This one turned around and came back at us somehow," Hemming, 62, told the AP by phone from his home in Easton, Md. "Those torpedo screws are noisy, it's almost like a screaming sound. It went right over top of us."

At the computer kiosk in the torpedo room, visitors can relive that near disaster - right down to the harrowing sound and feel of the torpedo screaming overhead.

Other veterans' stories are more lighthearted.

In one re-enacted recording in the mess hall, former Requin torpedoman Robert "Dex" Armstrong recalls how sailors on the Requin strongly preferred Peter Pan peanut butter over other popular brands.

"We were a Peter Pan boat. Skippy eaters were treated like subversive, nonbelieving heathens," an actor reads from a letter by Armstrong. "The cooks knew that bringing Skippy on board could lead to physical violence. You either rode with the good guys or became a Skippy eater."

But there is one aspect of submarine life that exhibitors will not have to rely on high-technology to recreate: the smell.

"Still has a little aroma to it," said Jeff Sammel, a volunteer guide at the science center who served on the USS Grampus, a submarine similar to the Requin. He said the smell was a heady mix of diesel, hydraulic fluid, cigarettes and sweat.

"World War II, when the crews came in, most just threw their clothes away," he said.

But Tim Cantwell, 62, a former electrician on the Requin, said that was never a problem for him.

"When you come home, it doesn't matter how many times you shower, that diesel smell stays on you," he said from his home in Dahlonega, Ga. "But my wife, she says she loved it."


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