Auburn University research project allows the world to peer inside the USS Drum submarine

Bill Lister hadn’t been on the USS Drum in years.

The 97-year-old resident of Edinburgh, Indiana, is believed to be the last surviving crew member of the World War II submarine on display at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. A first-rate radio operator during the war, Lister was part of eight missions on the Drum. He estimates that around 2015 was the last time he went to see Mobile as part of the annual reunions.

But this year, through the wonders of technology, Lister was able to take a journey through the 311-foot-9-inch submarine he crewed with dozens of others during one of the most transformative times in American history. Thanks to an inter-university project led by Auburn University’s Junshan Liu of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction (CADC) and Danielle Willkens of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Design, Lister was able to use virtual reality equipment to create a virtual tour through his former ship.

Liu, Willkens and their team used 360-degree cameras and lidar scanners to capture images from inside the eight-compartment submarine, putting together a highly interactive virtual tour available for everyone to view via the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park website is accessible. The tour, which went live on Veterans Day, is a unique way to see the Gato-class submarine, featuring commentary from Lister and video segments featuring Tom Bowser, a retired nuclear submarine operator who is writing a book about it wrote USS drum.

Auburn researcher Junshan Liu (left) and USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park Curator Shea McLean (right) made a trip to Indiana to visit Bill Lister, the last surviving crew member of the USS Drum, and give him a little insight into the to give a virtual tour. (Contribution)

Lister – who served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1945 and 1949 to 1966 – was intrigued by the interactive tour after getting a glimpse during a nearly day-long visit with the research and restoration team earlier this year. Liu and Shea McLean, curator of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, made a trip to Indiana to show Lister the technology and let him tour the boat.

“It’s been very interesting and I think it’s a good deal,” said Lister, who was also part of the crew of the USS Nautilus during his tenure. “I’ve walked through the boat and you get a good idea of ​​what’s going on. They said, ‘Point to a point’ and then, boom, I was in the conning tower. I haven’t been in the 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.

Bill Lister uses virtual reality technology at his Indiana home to get inside the USS Drum, a submarine he helped crew on eight sorties during World War II as a member of the US Navy. (Contribution)

“I went completely through the boat,” said Lister, who told researchers he now tours the sub from Indiana almost every day. “You can take someone like me or someone who is claustrophobic and would rather (virtually) do it. You get the idea when you do this that you are actually pointing to it [pointer] at something. It’s really very realistic.

“You work your way through with these little dots, and you push the button and, Bing, you’re in the front battery. You point it to a point forward on deck, push a button and zip, you’re there.”

Lister said that viewing the drum – which operated from 1941 to 1946 – brought back memories of his days aboard the U-boat from 1943 to October 1945 in such detail.

“Submarine forces never got a lot of attention,” said Lister, who joined when he was 17. “We had 80 men on a 311-foot mechanized sewer pipe. I fought a different war than my brother in the Marine Corps. Only 15,200 men actually patrolled and rode the boats during the war, and they killed 28 percent of us.

“We just weren’t around anyone (out at sea), and there were times when you were scared. I knew the war was on and what we were doing. Every U-boat had its territory, and you stayed in your territory.”

Unique research opportunity

The USS Drum project gave researchers the opportunity to bring a precious World War II relic to those who had not previously been able to experience it.

“The main purpose of this project is to allow elderly veterans and people with limited mobility to visit the USS Drum virtually,” said Liu, who has been working on the project since June 2021. We’ve documented construction sites and historic buildings for years, but we got it tested on a naval vessel for the first time. The whole experience was challenging but also very rewarding.

“One thing we found most exciting about this project was that the virtual tour can serve as a repository to archive and share Bill’s incredible war stories aboard the Drum and Tom’s amazing submarine restoration work, that only is accessible via a staircase. person visits the boat.”

The USS Drum project was an unusual endeavor for Liu and his team.

“As a researcher, it’s not every day that you take part in this type of project,” Liu said. “I feel so fortunate to be involved in this very meaningful work, with the support of my school, CADC and a colleague from RBD’s (Ralph Brown Draughon Library) Innovation & Research Commons. We have started discussion with USS Alabama about our next projects, including bringing the battleship online and virtual showcasing of their fighter jets and so on.”

For Willkens, the project was about creating accessibility and preserving history.

“The virtual tour offers visitors a unique experience of interacting with the submarine and its history at their own pace,” said Willkens. “You can delve deep into technical aspects or explore the stories of those who worked on board. I hope this is the first of many projects for us there at Battleship Park.”

Next step in the restoration, conservation

This USS Drum research project was the latest in a series of park management commitments to the restoration and preservation of historic ships like the submarine. It reflects a concerted effort by the park’s team of restoration professionals in 2007 to continue building a living history in Mobile Bay.

“The video collaboration between USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park and Auburn University’s McWhorter School of Building Science is all about access to history,” said Maj. Gen. Janet Cobb, the park’s executive director. “It was created for those who don’t have physical access to the USS Drum submarine, or for a curious school kid on the other side of the world. When you’re greeted by the last surviving member of the WWII crew of the USS Drum? A phenomenal experience.”

McLean said the virtual tour offers a fun, interactive way to explore the world’s oldest displayed American submarine without having to physically navigate the cramped spaces.

“First, the USS Drum was never designed as a ship with ample interior space, and the interiors are cramped and often difficult to navigate,” McLean said. “It’s filled with small compartments and narrow passages, and each compartment is separated by a small oval watertight door, which is also somewhat difficult to pass through.

“These virtual tours, for the first time, make the Drum accessible to anyone wishing to tour the ship from bow to stern. Additionally, these tours will make the ship accessible to people worldwide who otherwise might not be able to travel to Mobile to see in person,” he said. “The addition of interactive face-to-face interviews combined with archival footage gives the visitor a better sense of the boat’s history and what it was like to crew the warship during the world’s greatest historical conflict, World War II.”

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile has added a virtual tour to its website thanks to a project co-led by Auburn Associate Professor Junshan Liu. (Contribution)

Lister highly praised the park’s restoration and preservation efforts.

“It’s probably one of the better military parks in the country because there are so many,” said Lister, who cruised aboard O-boats, R-boats, and S-boats during his time in the Navy. “It was necessary for them to get the drum out of the water. By the eighth run it broke so badly they had to replace the conning tower and when they pulled it out of the water it was in pretty bad shape.

‘It’s in better shape now than it was when I got off it. 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 worked with Mobile Park to ensure future generations of history buffs have a chance to see the USS Drum in such a fun and interactive way.

“I have high hopes of seeing the drum again, but I don’t have high hopes of getting it,” said Lister, who has attended 30-40 USS Drum meets at the park. “They did a good job stopping at the right places and pointing out this and that. I think what they are doing down there is good and will preserve a lot of history.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.