Ducks Aweigh!

Last month, for my birthday, I took a little trip to Battleship Cove to pay my respects so history. It was a hell of a trip, and I intended to take a ton of photographs. I even put an 8GB card in my camera so I wouldn’t run out of memory.

That’s when I found out that my camera doesn’t play nice with High Capacity SD cards. It took three photos, then locked up. Oh, well.

But I had a hell of a time. I think I walked about seven decks of Big Mamie, the USS Massachusetts, 46,000 tons of steel, from the midpoint of the superstructure down to the bowels of the ship. And I also got to explore the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the submarine USS Lionfish, and the Hiddensee — a Soviet-built missile corvette that we acquired from Germany after East and West Germany reunited.

One thing that really impressed me was the paradox of warships — as big as they are on the outside, they’re tiny on the inside. The doorsills were anywhere from about eight inches to two feet high, the passageways barely wide enough for two people to pass, the ceilings as low as six feet, and the ladders almost vertical.

And it was even tighter on the submarine.

There is also a palpable sense of history on these ships, especially the Massachusetts. She was the first American battleships to fire her main guns in anger, off the coast of Africa, and the last, off the coast of Japan. She earned awards for participating in 11 battles, helped sink the French battleship Jean Bart, and fought in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

And in her four years of service, she never lost a single crewman.

I am not a small person, but I have never felt so small as I did standing by the aft main turret of the Massachusetts. They have one of the shells for her main guns on deck. It’s about four feet tall, 16″ in diameter, and weighs 2,700 pounds.

The gun that fires that shell has a 60-foot-long barrel, and could toss that shell about 20 miles with frightening accuracy.

Mamie carries nine of those guns, and they could fire about twice a minute.

That’s about the equivalent of 18 new Honda Civics full of high explosives being launched every minute.

But it’s not just the numbers or factoids. It’s the history, and the human element.

The Massachusetts was a floating city. She carried about 2,200 men to war, and was their home for months on end. Their entire world was the ship, a floating fortress barely two football fields long and barely 100 feet wide at its widest. Those men slept in bunks stacked three and four high, ate at tables that folded up against walls, used tiny bathrooms that make broom closets look spacious.

And she kept every single one of them safe and sound.

In the years just before and during World War II, the United States built ten fast battleships — two North Carolinas, four South Dakotas, and four Iowas. Seven of them are still around — the North Carolina, the Alabama, the Massachusetts, the Iowa, the Wisconsin, the New Jersey, and the Missouri. (Also the USS Texas, a veteran of both World Wars.) Most of them are museums now.

For anyone with a sense of history, it is almost mandatory to make a pilgrimage to these mighty, storied, glorious vessels. To walk their decks, to look and touch and smell these glimpses into history. It is an experience that can not be properly captured in mere words.

As I said, I didn’t get any good pictures of the trip. But I did buy some souvenirs, and once I figured out why my camera crapped out on me when I was counting on it, I took some. Here’s one that I think folks will appreciate.


Verdance and Venom
The Knucklehead of the Day award