Exploring Battleship Cove in Fall River
It’s a familiar blur as you speed across the Braga Bridge, but a visit to Battleship Cove makes a fascinating detour.
“Hold fast for impact.” You’re trained for this, but you never quite believed the moment would come. A torpedo is zeroing in, and you’re an engineer working down in the belly of a battleship, a.k.a. the target zone. You’re in foreign waters, far from home, and it’s 1942, when snail mail is the main means of communication.
There’s no chance of doling out goodbyes to loved ones. All you can do is wait.
How would you feel in that moment?
It’s a question often posed to visitors of the USS Massachusetts, one of the main attractions of Battleship Cove in Fall River. It’s a question asked of me when I come aboard the World War II battleship docked beside the Braga Bridge along the banks of the Taunton River on a blustery Wednesday afternoon. But not right away: Elizabeth York, the Cove’s director of collections, and Joshua Bell, its education manager, show me around the ship and tell me a little bit about her history first.
Built at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, the USS Massachusetts — nicknamed “Big Mamie” by the crew — was launched on September 23, 1941, and later delivered to the Boston Navy Yard in April of 1942. She was originally designed to hold around 1,800 men, but by the height of the war she accommodated up to 2,300 (around 800 of whom were tasked with operating the ship’s seven gunnery divisions, alone).
But just who were these guys? “They were Navy men from all over the country,” says York. “But, in the initial crew, there were a certain number from Massachusetts. They enlisted in the Navy after working in Fore River Shipyard, specifically to serve on this ship because they had helped build her.”
This meant that many of these Massachusetts men actually weren’t regular able seamen, but rather specialized tradesmen like metalsmiths, pipefitters or carpenter’s mates. Their familiarity with the vessel came in handy when she was going through her sea trials before being commissioned and first operated out of Casco Bay, Maine. Then, in late October of 1942, Big Mamie was sent over to the Mediterranean to be part of Operation Torch, the United States invasion of North Africa.
“The Naval Battle of Casablanca was the first engagement that the ship was involved in,” says York. “She fired upon the French battleship, Jean Bart, and she was also credited with helping sink two destroyers, two merchant ships and a floating dry-dock. The ship had 800 of her sixteen-inch shells on board, and she fired 786 of them — a pretty good number. It was really the first test that the battleship was put through, and she passed with flying colors.”
She didn’t go completely unscathed, however: During the battle, the USS Massachusetts was hit three times. That scenario from the beginning of this article? It’s a firsthand account taken from an oral history preserved aboard the ship. It turns out, the engineer and his fellow crew members made it through just fine. In fact, the ship’s captain was able to turn the ship and avoid not one, but three oncoming missiles all together. The three hits were from smaller rounds that, fortunately, struck parts of the ship that were unoccupied at the time and caused relatively minor damage.
Remarkably, York claims not a single USS Massachusetts man was lost in battle during World War II. This was in part due to the ship’s superb manufacturing, the sailors’ extensive training and their ability to make repairs on the go. If you, like me, are picturing Bugs Bunny putting a cork in his sinking boat, you’re not far off.
“There’s this thing called a damage control plug; it’s literally a big piece of wood,” says York. “When they got hit, they would find a plug to fit the hole, knock it in there, and then they’d put shims around it to keep it water tight. Only big overhauls would be done in port.”
After such a refitting took place in Boston, Big Mamie went on to join the action in the Pacific in 1943. She remained there for three-and-a-half years of active service — which notably involved the invasion of the Gilbert Islands and the Marshall Islands and attacks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa before their invasions in 1945 — before returning to the States at the end of the war. She operated with the Pacific Fleet until mid-1946, when she was retired to the Reserve Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia.
So how did Big Mamie end up back in Massachusetts? The homecoming was all thanks to a former crewmember.
“He had joined the first crew in 1942 and he stayed on all the way until the ship was decommissioned. He moved home to Fall River afterwards and he kept in touch with some of his fellow Navy men,” says York. “In 1965, they decided to save the ship from mothballs and bring her back up to Massachusetts.”
The process involved raising enough money to purchase the battleship from the Navy — with help from Massachusetts schoolchildren’s fundraising efforts — and also promising three things: One, they couldn’t reactivate the ship; two, it was to be positioned as a museum; and three, Battleship Cove was to become the World War II memorial for the state of Massachusetts. The former crewmembers brought Big Mamie to Fall River in June 1965 and got to work.
“A lot of the parts of the ship had been taken off and repurposed for other ships throughout the years,” York explains. “And so, the ship did not have much of her context left. It was very empty in a way.”
So the crew made it their mission to put her back together again, repairing and restoring state rooms, tracking down the right furniture and borrowing artifacts from the Navy.
“It was a massive effort. They replaced everything from the clocks to the light fixtures,” says York.
The restored USS Massachusetts officially opened to the public in August 1965 and has remained a staple ever since. Today, she’s berthed in good company. In the same waters, there’s the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a destroyer that served as a peacekeeper in the Mediterranean after World War II, saw some action during the Korean War and was embroiled in an interesting situation during the Cuban Missile Crisis that resulted in one of the only allowances of a Russian-chartered freighter to breach the blockade; the USS Lionfish, a Balao-class submarine credited with one or two kills (a.k.a. sunk Japanese ships), depending on who you ask — the second was never verified — and which later acted as a life rescue for the Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb; and the Hiddensee, the only exhibited example of a Soviet-built missile corvette in the United States.