Battleship Park’s Janet Cobb is at the helm of a living memorial

Battleship Park’s Janet Cobb is at the helm of a living memorial
When people visit USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Executive Director Janet Cobb wants to make sure they think not just about the ship but about the men who served on it. (Emmett Burnett/Alabama Living)

As executive director of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Janet Cobb’s occupation is unusual. How unusual? Your worksite has a water cooler. Hers has anti-aircraft guns.

Baldwin County-raised and retired from a 42-year military career including leadership roles in Kuwait, the Netherlands and Washington, D.C., Army Reserve Major General Cobb was named the park’s executive director in December 2015.

In the early days of COVID-19, her leadership skills were put to the test. Battleship Park closed for the first time ever outside of hurricane-related events, and its income disappeared except for an occasional donation. “Fortunately, we have always practiced sound fiscal planning, which started under the direction of my predecessor, director Bill Tunnel,” Cobb said.

The park was able to retain all of its employees, who took advantage of the downtime to get almost a year ahead on the park’s maintenance schedule and complete restoration projects that might have taken years while the park was open. The ship, submarine and other facilities have since reopened with new safety features in place. “We run a tight ship,” Cobb said.

Cobb took time to discuss the ship she loves and the business of running a major tourist attraction.

Alabama Living: What were your impressions when boarding the USS Alabama the first time?

Janet Cobb: I am from Elberta, graduated from Foley High School in 1974 and frequently saw the ship as I traveled to and from Mobile. But it was 1995 before actually walking on board. I escorted a friend’s grandson for a tour. My first impression was about the same as everyone else’s. The ship is much bigger up close. It is massive. They don’t call it a battlewagon for nothing. It felt like we were walking on a movie set.

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park reopened with new safety features after shutting down during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic. (file)

AL: With five years’ experience as director, what are your impressions today at USS Alabama?

Cobb: Every day, when I drive down “the hill” from Spanish Fort, I look for the ship. It is like coming home to friends. The intricacies of the vessel, the detail and preservation still amaze me. Knowing I walk the decks where 2,500 men were tightly packed and the sacrifices they made to live that lifestyle, while other people were shooting at them, is still incredible. I have met some of those crewmen – not many are left. But they left a lasting impression on me.

AL: Describe a typical day at the office.

Cobb: Every day is different, and I enjoy every day. I check email before arriving at the park, then tend to daily matters – personnel issues, the gift shop, maintenance and things that pop up. Fortunately, we have excellent people working here. I do a lot on the financial side of the business, engaged with state agencies and funding. One of the most rewarding parts of the job is walking the deck, mingling with visitors and interacting with them. The day is never boring.

AL: What is the number one question children ask you about the ship?

Cobb: Can I climb to the top?

AL: What is the takeaway you want Battleship Park visitors to have when they leave?

Cobb: I want them to remember not just the park, but those who served. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Of the thousands who manned this ship, only a handful are left. Soon they and their stories will be gone. That generation is leaving us, and I am concerned our memories of them are fading, too. This ship represents those who sacrificed, not just aboard the USS Alabama, but all military in all branches. This ship is a memorial to those who served and those who continue to do so. I hope it always will be.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

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