By Allison Perkins
Editor's note: This story was first published Oct. 31, 2002.
WILMINGTON - Danny Bradshaw can't really complain about his job. He gets full benefits, a nighttime shift he enjoys and a room of his own. He is paid to babysit the USS North Carolina battleship memorial late at night after all the tourists have headed home.
The problem is, he believes he's never really alone.
Many of his co-workers say he's nuts, silly, just making up stories. And Bradshaw knows many people will dismiss everything he says. But he believes - no, he says he knows - that ghosts haunt the battleship.
Bradshaw took the job of night watchman in 1976 after a buddy had held it for five years, leaving to become a pilot. It was an easy job, his friend insisted. But to Bradshaw, it sounded almost too good to be true. I know you're holding something back, he said.
``Don't laugh in my face,'' the friend told Bradshaw. ''There are going to be things that happen here there's no explanation for.''
But, really, how bad could it be, Bradshaw recalls thinking as he retells the story of his move to the battleship. He leans back in his chair and rests his hands on his belly, fit snug in a dusty, black polo shirt sporting the ship's insignia.
``I knew I could sleep through anything,'' he says matter-of-factly.
But here, he can't sleep. Here, aboard this instrument of war, Bradshaw says the ship's past surrounds him, chases him, may even be out to hurt him.
He sometimes escapes by sleeping in a pickup truck onshore. He folds his 5-foot, 11-inch frame into the makeshift bed on wheels and parks near the battleship memorial's slip on the Cape Fear River. It's calm there.
After 26 years on the job, save for a few months' absence ``due to a woman,'' his days revolve around making it through his nights.
``Sometimes at night I take friends in, and they want to hear ghost stories - they think it's a big joke,'' he says, looking away. He stops at the top of a metal stairwell leading below deck.
``I want you to understand this place is haunted,'' he says, flicking on his flashlight. ``I get scared. I get horrified.''
Not that a 61-year-old, World War II-era battleship, full of creaking stairwells and narrow, metallic passageways, is exactly warm and inviting. In the summer, the air below deck is stagnant, hot, muggy. In the winter, it's warm and comfortable in the heated tourist areas, freezing elsewhere.
But it's also dark inside. Bradshaw makes his rounds each night, moving carefully to each power box to switch on the juice that will let light slice through the night.
It was on such a pitch-black night, Bradshaw recalls, that he first saw him.
Bradshaw was headed to the galley, below deck, to a power box. The beam from his flashlight bounced off the life-size, faceless cutouts of sailors working in the kitchen and standing in line for chow. The cardboard crew gives visitors a glimpse of a sailor's life.
As Bradshaw reached into the power box, he recalls, he felt a gust of cold air and a hand on his shoulder. He spun around and shone his flashlight into the empty space. He heard footsteps walking away.
He jerked the beam of light around the room. There were empty tables and benches. In the open hatch nearby stood a sailor with blond hair so fair it looked white. The light from the flashlight passed right through him. Bradshaw screamed. The sailor turned his head and disappeared.
``It was the horrible-est thing I've ever experienced,'' Bradshaw says.
There was no way Bradshaw was heading through that same passageway to leave. He ran back to another ladder.
``I needed to get out,'' he recalls thinking. ``If he was going to get me, I needed to be outside where I could holler.''
As he headed up the ladder, something was banging on the top. He could hear heavy footsteps descending from above.
``I lost it,'' he says. ``I thought, 'He's trapped me. He's not going to let me out.' ''
Bradshaw ran back through the ship to the other side of the tour route, to another set of ladders where he paused to pray:
``Please, God, let me out. I don't want to die here.''
Ten men did die aboard this ship, which participated in every major naval battle in the Pacific during World War II, earning 15 battle stars.
Five men died when the ship was torpedoed Sept. 15, 1942. Another three were killed by friendly fire in April 1945. The remaining two died in separate incidents.
At least two of the dead, Bradshaw believes, still walk the ship today.
One is good. One is evil. One likes to rattle things, cut off the lights, slam the doors, move things around in the room.
The other is cold and much more wicked. When he is near, Bradshaw says, the temperature in the room drops and Bradshaw can see his own breath, even in the humid summers. He has chased Bradshaw and yelled at him. He, too, can move objects.
``All of a sudden, you start getting an eerie feeling, like something bad is fixing to happen,'' Bradshaw says. Both ghosts, he adds, typically harass him for several minutes before disappearing.
He has learned not to run, not to scream, he says. Now he sits and waits. ``I don't want to leave. I want him to leave.''
The ghosts have appeared during the day, when Bradshaw was leading tourists through the ship. The ghosts have appeared to his friends. They have appeared to other employees and visitors even when Bradshaw is not around.
As much as he fears his shipmates, Bradshaw revels in their mystery, speaking low and slow as he recalls his encounters with the pair.
At the climax of the telling of one such tale, a generator screeches to a halt - boom! Bradshaw looks up and smiles. ``I'm good, right?''
Bradshaw has lived aboard the battleship since taking the job, in about as much comfort as the more than 2,000 sailors who called the floating city home during World War II. He has an officer's stateroom with two mattress stacked on the floor, a tiny television and a shower that leaks onto the room's cold, metal floor.
The ghosts have visited there, too.
One night while he was watching television, there came a tapping on the wall. The temperature in the room dropped.
Bradshaw - tired, sleepy and mad - finally had had enough.
``I didn't feel like going through the (mischief) of another night. I was scared. Then I got mad. When he stopped tapping, I yelled, 'Stop it!' and then I thought, 'I can't believe I did that. He's going to come out of there and slap you upside the head.' But I never heard it again that night.''
His friends wonder why he stays.
``I need a job. It's an easy job, if I can get through one night,'' he says. Because his duties on the ship, switching off lights and checking exits, only takes a few hours, Bradshaw spends much of his shift sleeping, leaving him awake and free during the day to spend time with his niece, a UNC-Wilmington student.
And the battleship, Bradshaw says, is his home, too - ghost or no ghost.
His threadbare room is good enough for him. There's a washer and dryer on the dock in the visitors' center. He eats out a lot, or his friends bring him home-cooked treats in exchange for a ghost story or two.
Bradshaw also is just 10 years from retirement, a benefit he can't bear to give up.
Yet he can't help thinking that the evil ghost is waiting for just that - taunting him, toying with him and terrifying him until he nears retirement age, when it plans to harm him.
``Two things bother me: He can physically move things, and there's evil in 'im,'' Bradshaw says. ``I don't know if he's saving something up for me. It makes me wonder if there's going to be a night he's going to do something bad.
``I'm over here by myself, and if something happens, no one is going to find me until morning.''
USS North Carolina's believes it's a haunted ship.
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