Thursday, July 21, 2016

USS Massachusetts (BB-59)

Recently I was fortunate enough to stop by Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. I had been there before when I was maybe ten years old, but although the Cove is only an hour and a half drive from home, I had never been back. I was in the area recently so I felt compelled to stop by and check it out.


This time, I had a camera with me. I felt a curious pressure--I didn't want to spend all day there, as it was an unplanned visit, but also I wasn't encumbered by my wife and young kids, so I could geek out and explore at my leisure. I found, however, that the museum is really large enough that if I really wanted to, I could have spent the entire day exploring.

Battleship Cove consists of multiple museum ships:  The prime attraction is of course the USS Massachusetts (BB-59), a South Dakota-class battleship. Also is a former Soviet, then East German, then German missile boat, a Tarantul I-class corvette, the Hiddensee (formerly the Rudolf Egelhofer)the Balao-class submarine USS Lionfish (SS-298); and the Gearing-class destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD-850).

USS Massachusetts.  Hiddensee and USS Lionfish are to the left
Right outside the gift shop are a few displays of an Army Huey and a Cobra Helicopter, a few indoor displays of PT Boats, and a Landing Craft. Beyond are the ships, and I boarded the Massachusetts first.
The first impression you have when boarding the ship is that it's big. Admittedly, it is a battleship, but standing on board, it's when you realize that you could comfortably stick a tennis court or a basketball court on any number of places on the deck that it really hits you just how big it is. (Note: I have been on board an aircraft carrier too, which was even bigger, but that was in high school so it's been a while)
They were working on repainting the gun barrels of Turret #3.

Secondary Battery

A display showing a 16" shell, and fragments from 16" hits against the French Battleship Jean Bart during the Battle of Casablanca.

Shrapnel damage from an 8" shell that exploded over the deck during the Battle of Casablanca. 
The shrapnel damage reminds you that the deck is not a place you want to be during an action. It makes me wonder about those who worked the AA guns, who despite all the metal around them, must have felt very exposed. If shrapnel can tear chunks out of the steel of the ship's superstructure, one can only imagine which it would do to a person.

5"/38, one of the secondary battery turrets

Inside the 5"/38 turret
The 5" gun turrets are very cramped inside, and must have been very crowded during battle. There is a seat to the far left where a crewman sighted the guns, and a pair of seats--they look like bicycle seats, really, between the two guns.  When manned, it's so tight that the two men must have been in physical contact with each other.  And then there are the loaders who were moving around in tight quarters as well.
View looking up towards the superstructure

16" Turret #2

40mm AA gun and two 16" turrets


View from the bow


16" guns, looking pretty powerful

16" guns, still looking powerful

A view of the bridge from the deck near Turret #2

40mm "pom pom" AA gun
After exploring the main deck, it was time to go below. The ladders are very steep, you have to watch both your head and footing and you make your way down.
Hatch leading below decks
The "beds" were packed in rather tight... and were not very long either.  I'm only 5'7", and I doubt I could have laid on one of these without my feet sticking off the end.
Luxury accommodations, to be sure
My father served on a Sumner-class destroyer in the late 1950s, and told me that the toilets were essentially a trough with water flowing along it, and seats on top.  He wasn't kidding.  The battleship's facilities were much the same.
Just in case you need to use the bathroom...
Underneath the secondary battery was the magazine, where both shells and powder was sent above by elevators.
Ammunition hoists from the magazine to the 5" turrets above.
After working your way through the bowels of the ship for a while, you get a few impressions. Everything is metal. It's very easy to bang your elbows or shins into something very hard. I can only imagine what it must have been like when lots of things were going on and crewmembers were going about their business in the tight passageways.
The longest forward/aft passageway on the ship, aka "Broadway"
You also get the impression that if something terrible happened, for example, the ship is torpedoed in the middle of the night, it would be complete chaos. Men running to their stations, the ship listing, lights perhaps going out, etc. If I was below decks and the ship was flooding and in danger of sinking, I'd have zero confidence of being able to make it up on deck in time. Despite this being a battleship, everything is tight, cramped, and could easily get claustrophobic. Add to that the chaos of a ship sinking, it's a miracle anyone survived sinkings at all, and makes you understand just why so many ships sank "with all hands."  It gives you some additional respect for those working deep within the ship, and the trust they had to have in their shipmates. They were all trapped in the tin can together, each man depending on all the others for their safety.
5" shell storage

5" gun powder room. There are things here that don't respond well to bullets...

Ammunition hoists from the magazine to the 5" turrets above.
The next few pictures are from within the Turret #2 barbette. All of the projectiles are stored within the upper levels of the barbette itself, while the powder is stored in the magazines below.
16" shells, stored within the barbettes
Turret #2, being the highest above the deck, has an additional level, called the balcony, and there more 16" shells are stored. During the Battle of Casablanca, the ship nearly ran out of 16" shells (which is pretty amazing to contemplate), and extra shells has to be transported from Turret #2 to Turrets #1 and #3. Fortunately the ship was designed with a rail system to do this, for just this situation. Transporting the shells through the passageways wouldn't exactly be easy, if it were even possible.
Ladder leading down from the "balcony" of Turret #2 down to the main level of the barbette. Watch your head!

Main battery plotting room
There were signs in the engine room saying that the room was typically 120 degrees F.  Lovely working conditions...
Engine room, complete with lots of asbestos!

40mm AA gun
I had always wondered about the bridge of a battleship. With 16" shells being lobbed back and forth between angry vessels, what is normally thought of as the "bridge", with its windows and nice views, would be a deathtrap. Indeed, in various books I've read about World War II naval battles, such as those at Guadalcanal, there are descriptions of the bridge being a slaughterhouse (q.v., HMAS Canberra and USS Quincy at the Battle of Savo Island, both cruisers, but you get the idea).

Seeing as the captain is rather important for the operation of a battleship, as well as other vital things like the helm, engine enunciator and so forth, it seemed to me foolish to leave them exposed. But it turns out the Navy isn't as dumb as I thought.
Hatchway (with 16" thick armor) to the Conning Station, where the ship was actually steered during combat
The bridge itself was empty except for a few chairs--it really was a pilothouse rather than the "bridge."  The "real" bridge was the Conning Station--just aft of the bridge, and protected by no less than 16" of armor. Inside the room was the ship's wheel, some scopes, and the engine enunciator. In this well-protected compartment is where the ship would be controlled.
Within the Conning Station. During battle the captain, helmsman, and lee helmsman would be here. Rather claustrophobic...Scopes, but no windows.

View from the bridge pilothouse

View of the superstructure

Mark 37 Fire Control Director
Fire control was also kept well protected, the information being funneled down an armored section to the plotting rooms.  The Combat Information Center was originally placed in the superstructure, was wisely moved into the bowels of the ship.

There's something about actually going to see something in person that answers more questions in five minutes than hours of research in books can't tell you.  Seeing the Massachusetts was a real treat and I am glad I went. I wish I had the time to explore it a bit further, and beyond that, I wish I had spent more time on the other ships present. That will have to be a second trip, however.

In any event, if you happen to be in the area, I highly recommend Battleship Cove as a museum. Great stuff.

1 comment:

Courtney Hollyoake said...

Really interesting read - and great pictures too. I remember doing a tour of the USS New Jersey when I was about 16 and just being amazed by the size but also claustrophobic nature of the ship.