Bill Lister hadn’t been on the USS Drum for years.
The 97-year-old Edinburg, Indiana resident is believed to be the last living crew member of the WWII submarine, on display at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. Lister, radio operator first class during the war, was part of eight missions on the Drum. He figures the last time he went to Mobile to see it as part of the annual reunions was around 2015.
But this year, thanks to the marvels of technology, Lister was able to embark on a journey through the 311-foot, 9-inch submarine he shared with dozens of others during one of the most transformative periods in American history. Thanks to an inter-university project led by Junshan Liu of the Auburn University College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) and Danielle Willkens of the College of Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Lister was able to use virtual reality equipment to take a virtual tour of his former ship.
Liu, Willkens and their team used 360-degree cameras and Lidar scanners to capture images of the interior of the eight-compartment submarine and create a highly interactive virtual tour accessible to all through the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park website. The tour, which went live on Veterans Day, is a unique way to see the Gato-class submarine that includes commentary by Lister and video segments with Tom Bowser, a retired nuclear submariner who has written a book about the USS Drum .
Lister, who served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1945 and 1949 to 1966, was intrigued by the interactive tour after being given a sneak peek during a nearly day-long visit with the research and restoration team earlier this year. Liu and USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park curator Shea McLean took a trip to Indiana to show Lister the technology and show him around the boat.
“It was very interesting, and I think it’s a good deal,” said Lister, who also crewed the USS Nautilus during his time in the service. “I’ve examined the boat and you have a good idea of what’s going on. They said, “Point to a spot” and then, zoom, I was in the conning tower. I hadn’t been in the conning tower since the war.
Lister was able to spend a lot of time touring the boat and watching his great-granddaughter navigate the interactive expedition.
“I went all the way through the boat,” said Lister, who told researchers he now visits the sub nearly every day from Indiana. “They can take someone like me, or someone who is claustrophobic and would rather do it (virtually). When you do this, you get the idea that you are actually pointing to this [pointer] to something. It’s very realistic, really.
“You make your way with these dots, hit the button and, bing, you’re in the advanced battery. You point it at a point forward on the bridge, press a button and, zip, you’re there.
Lister said the tour of the Drum – which was in service from 1941 to 1946 – in such detail brought back memories of his days aboard the submarine from 1943 until October 1945.
“The submarine force never got much publicity,” said Lister, who enlisted at 17. “We had 80 men on a 311-foot long mechanized sewer pipe. I fought a different war than my brother did in the Marine Corps. Only 15,200 men actually patrolled and drove boats during the war, and they killed 28 percent our.
“We were just not with anyone (at sea), and there were moments when you were afraid. I knew the war was going on and what we were doing. Each submarine had its own area and you stayed in your area.
One-of-a-kind research opportunity
The USS Drum project has offered researchers the ability to provide accessibility to a valuable WWII relic to those who had previously been unable to experience it.
“The primary purpose of this project is to allow elderly veterans and people with limited mobility to virtually tour the USS Drum,” said Liu, who has been working on the project since June 2021. “Danielle and I have been using the same technology in for years we’ve documented construction sites and historic buildings, but this was our first time testing it on a military ship.The whole experience was challenging, but also very rewarding.
“One thing we found most exciting about this project is that the virtual tour can serve as a repository for archiving and sharing Bill’s incredible war stories aboard the Drum and Tom’s incredible work restoring the submarine, which is accessible only by stairs to the inside.person visit to the boat.
The USS Drum project was an unusual endeavor for Liu and his team.
“As a researcher, you can’t participate in this kind of project every day,” Liu said. “I feel so fortunate to be involved in this very significant work, with the support of my school, the CADC and a colleague from the RBD (Ralph Brown Draughon Library) Innovation & Research Commons. We’ve started discussions with the USS Alabama about our next projects, including bringing the battleship online and virtually showcasing their warplanes, et cetera.
For Willkens, the project was about accessibility and the preservation of history.
“The virtual tour offers visitors a unique experience to interact with the submarine and its history at their own pace,” Willkens said. “They can delve into the technical aspects or explore the stories of those who worked on board. I hope this is the first of many projects for us at Battleship Park.”
The USS Drum is a major attraction at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. (contributed)
The virtual tour of the USS Drum was a collaborative project between researchers at Auburn University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the staff and administration of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. (contributed)
Narrow passageways were the norm on the 311-foot, 9-inch USS Drum. (contributed)
The new USS Drum virtual tour allows visitors to take a look at the entire eight-compartment submarine, including the aft torpedo room. (contributed)
The next step in restoration, conservation
This research project on the USS Drum was the latest in a series of commitments made by the park administration to restore and preserve historic vessels such as the submarine. It reflects a concerted effort by the park’s expert restoration team dating back to 2007 to continue building a living history in Mobile Bay.
“The video collaboration between the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park and Auburn University’s McWhorter School of Building Science is about accessing history,” said Maj. Gen. (retired) Janet Cobb, executive director of the park. “It was created for those physically unable to access the USS Drum submarine, or for an inquisitive schoolboy on the other side of the world. When are you greeted by the last living WWII crew member of the USS Drum? A phenomenal experience.”
McLean said the virtual tour offers a fun and interactive way to explore the world’s oldest US submarine on display without having to physically navigate the confined spaces.
“First, the USS Drum was never designed to be a ship with a lot of room inside, and spaces inside are cramped and often difficult to navigate,” McLean said. “She It is full of small compartments and narrow passages, and each compartment is separated by a small oval airtight door that is also a bit difficult to pass through.
“These virtual tours will, for the first time ever, make the Drum accessible to all who wish to tour the ship from stem to stern. Additionally, these tours will make the ship available to people around the world who might not otherwise be able to make the trip to Mobile to see her in person,” he said. “The addition of interactive personal interviews, combined with archival footage , provides the visitor with a better sense of the history of the boat and what the crew of the warship was like during the world’s greatest historical conflict, WWII.”
Lister highly complimented the park’s restoration and conservation efforts.
“It’s probably one of the best military parks in the country, because they have so much there,” said Lister, who has done rides aboard O-boats, R-boats and S-boats during his time in the Navy. “It was necessary for them to take the Drum out of the water. She was so battered on the eighth run that they had to replace the conning tower, and when they pulled her out of the water, she was in terrible shape.
“That thing is in better shape right now than it was when I got off. They did a great job there in Alabama at the military park.”
History preserved through technology
Lister is pleased that the Auburn-led research team has partnered with Mobile Park to ensure that future generations of history buffs have the chance to see the USS Drum in such a fun and interactive way.
“I have high hopes of going to see the Drum again, but I don’t have high hopes of getting on it,” said Lister, who has attended 30 to 40 USS Drum reunions at the park. “Examining the boat, they did a good job of stopping in the right places and pointing this and that. I think what they are doing over there is good and will keep a lot of history.
This story originally appeared on the Auburn University website.