Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Veteran Voices: From Battleship Wisconsin Sailor To Battleship Wisconsin Operations Manager

Keith on the bridge of the USS Richard E. Byrd. (Keith Nitka)

WILLIAMSBURG — When 17-year-old Keith Nitka joined the U.S. Navy in 1987, his parents had to sign off on his service application due to his minor status. As he prepared to ship off to boot camp, Nitka was excited about the possibilities of traveling the world and experiencing new cultures.

After receiving orders to join the USS Richard E. Byrd, a guided missile destroyer, Nitka embarked on a UNITAS exercise cruise around South America. While aboard, he received his next assignment, to join the USS Wisconsin at Norfolk Naval Base. It wasn’t long after that Nitka and his new shipmates were underway toward the Persian Gulf to join Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

While aboard Wisconsin, Nitka was a Quartermaster who was in charge of navigation. He was part of a crew that saw her become the first ship to see an enemy combatant surrender to an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, and he was also present for one of the first Tomahawk missile strikes that started the war.

After earning the Navy Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon, Nitka completed his four-year enlistment and began his service in the Navy Reserves. He served 10 years before separating from the Navy.

Keith Nitka aboard the battleship Wisconsin in 1990. (Keith Nitka)

As Nitka wrapped up his naval service, so did the battleship Wisconsin. She was decommissioned in September 1991 and struck from the Naval Register in January 1995. In December of 2000, Wisconsin began her new mission as she was docked at Nauticus and her stewardship was transferred to the City of Norfolk.

Preserving battleship history has always been important for Nitka. He joined various re-enactment groups over the years and collected pieces of memorabilia relating to the US Navy.

“Preserving battleship history is a passion of mine as a battleship sailor. I am both a battleship and destroyer sailor, the Navy still has destroyers therefore we still have destroyer sailors but they do not have battleships anymore, hence my shipmates and I are the last battleship sailors. When we pass, so does our firsthand knowledge. Preserving battleship history allows generations well into the future to remember a time when the rulers of the sea were battleships and remember the men that sailed them and called them home,” Nitka says.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that he got word of an open position on his beloved battleship. A job posting opened up for a maintenance mechanic. After a conversation with his wife, he applied.

Nitka officially returned to the decks of the Wisconsin in 2019  — a job opportunity that he simply couldn’t pass up. He played a major role in opening 30,000 square feet of ship that were not previously open to the public, including the ship’s hospital and “Broadway”, the longest straight passageway on the ship.

And in January 2020, Nitka received a promotion with new responsibilities.

“Today at Nauticus, I am the Battleship Operations Manager, so most everything that happens on the ship I am involved with. I oversee the tour guides and I also work with the different departments at Nauticus such as education and exhibits in telling the story and history of not only Wisconsin, the last battleship built by the United States Navy, but also of her sisters in the Iowa class (USS Iowa, USS New Jersey, and USS Missouri),” Nitka says

A Wisky Wednesday video from Flag Day 2023. (Keith Nitka)

Bringing his staunch knowledge of battleship history, Nitka continues to work on educating the public during his weekly video series “Wisky Wednesday“. Each week, a new video is released that highlights an area, space, or job on the battleship. Created during the COVID-19 pandemic, the series originally gave viewers a chance to virtually visit the battleship.

Nitka remains proud of his Naval service each day, but one day in 1991 sticks out the most.

“My fondest memory of being a battleship sailor is being present for Fleet Week 1991 in NYC and marching in the ticker tape parade, down the ‘Canyon of Heroes’ on June 10, 1991. I still have a piece of ticker tape that I caught in my white hat during the parade.”

As he walks the decks of Wisconsin today, Nitka works closely with the teams that are responsible for renovating and recreating the places and spaces that were home to him.

“You can go to other museums and see artifacts of different wars but when you are visiting Battleship Wisconsin, you are walking on and in an artifact and there is history and a story around every corner and in every space.”

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