The Fleet of New England

Destroyer USS Cassin Young is a familiar sight in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.
Destroyer USS Cassin Young is a familiar sight in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

Having grown up in New England, I was treated to some outstanding naval history museums and related collections. Summer may come to pass, but this is still a wonderful time to travel and explore! If you ever get the opportunity to visit the region, I would highly suggest the following sites.

Albacore Park  (Portsmouth, New Hampshire):  The modern nuclear submarine didn’t just begin with the atomic marvel, USS Nautilus. The USS Albacore (AGSS-569), the first submarine with a teardrop hull, also lent a hand in the study of hydrodynamics, maneuvering, battery propulsion and dive planes. Albacore‘s motto was “Praenuntius Futuri” or “Forerunner of the Future”. Every trip to sea was an experiment in systems that would transform the submarine force. I’ve even read that the steering wheels in Albacore‘s control room were borrowed from an airship, since the handling motions are somewhat similar. (I would love a Navy expert to confirm that!) The jet-black submarine was retired to Albacore Park in Portsmouth where she remains to this day.

Battleship Cove  (Fall River, Massachusetts):  You might mistake Battleship Cove for an active naval base. This is the home of the battleship Massachusetts, destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., submarine Lionfish, two PT boats, the former Volksmarine corvette Hiddensee, and much more. It is a treasure trove of naval history and a joy for veterans. Like the USS Salem in Quincy, every compartment on these ships will show visitors how sailors lived and worked in war and peacetime. The newer addition of the Hiddensee is a rare look into Cold War technology.

United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum (Quincy, Massachusetts):  Ask a local from Quincy, and they’ll name a relative who once clocked in at the Fore River Shipyard. The industrial center used to be one of the most successful yards in the world. Natives also remember the mammoth “Goliath” crane that fitted spherical LNG tanks into commercial tanker hulls. The yard is now closed, but one of its piers is still home to the heavy cruiser USS Salem (CA-139). (Disclosure:  this writer once volunteered at this museum) A former flagship of the U.S. Sixth and Second fleets, USS Salem is an excellent example of late-1940s naval technology. The ship towers over the MBTA ferry boat that runs out of an adjacent dock. Talk to the Salem staff, and you’ll hear some great stories about life on a cruiser! Veterans are the spirit behind every military museum:  many still serve in their own way on this grand ship.

U.S.S. Constitution and U.S.S. Cassin Young (Charlestown, Massachusetts):  Naval vessels have been framed, launched, commissioned, repaired, and retired in the Charlestown Navy Yard since 1800. Much of the original space on Boston Harbor is converted for private and commercial use, but the presence of USS Constitution and USS Cassin Young reminds you of a very special history. The 44-gun sail frigate Constitution was launched in 1797 to guard American interests. To describe its combat record in a blog would hardly do justice to Old Ironsides. This is a floating legend deserving of visits from thousands of Americans each year. Not far from the sail frigate is an equally hardened warship, USS Cassin Young, a Fletcher-class destroyer that joined countless “tin cans” in Pacific action in World War II. Cassin Young was with Marines as they hit Okinawa. Later, on radar picket duty, her crew put up an immense fight against kamikaze planes that raided the fleet. Two of the deadly aircraft slipped past their defenses, claiming 22 sailors. It’s difficult to put words like “duty” and “sacrifice” into proper context until you see such ships for yourself.

Submarine Force Museum  (Groton, Connecticut): The centerpiece of this remarkable museum is USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first nuclear-powered submarine in history. Atomic energy permitted Nautilus to move faster and farther than conventional boats. In 1958, Nautilus became the first ship to cross the North Pole while submerged. Nautilus is located near a wonderful 6,000-volume research library and museum that traces submarine history. Modern attack boats, the inheritors of this grand legacy, operate from the U.S. Navy sub base not far away.

New England Air Museum  (Windsor Locks, Connecticut):  Although aviation history is not my specialty, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the well-preserved examples of military aviation in the aircraft collection of the NEAM. My particular favorites are the carrier-borne E-1B Tracer, a predecessor to the Hawkeye AWACS, and the Goodyear ZNPK-28 blimp control car. I’ve only been there once, but have to visit again!

History buffs and veterans are very lucky to have these museums! I was also excited when the ex-Russian sub K-77 opened to museum enthusiasts in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a terrific look at Soviet cruise missile development. (The vessel was even used at one point to film K-19: The Widowmaker with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.) Sadly, the vessel sank in a storm in 2007 and was sold for scrap. Owners hoped to use the proceeds to fund a new museum around the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.

Editor’s note:  Years ago, I visited a museum adjacent to the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine. However, I’ve been unable to locate the proper web site to that museum, and I don’t know if it still exists. Please let me know if you know something, and I’ll gladly update my content!


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