A Night in Battleship Cove

By Deborah Geigis Berry
Photographs by John R. Fulton Jr.

An overnight stay on the battleship Massachusetts gives Scouts a firsthand experience of naval history.

Troop 9 and other Scout visitors pose for a group picture on the deck of the U.S.S. Massachusetts.

On a chilly November day, the Scouts of Troop 9, Gardner, Mass., finally got their wish: to camp overnight on one of America's most famous battleships, the U.S.S. Massachusetts.

After registering and climbing up the gangway, it was time to explore the ship, longer than two football fields.

"This is cool," said Brian Nolin, 13, as he climbed upon the 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun mounts on the ship's massive deck. Positioning himself in the seat, he cranked the handwheels, taking aim at imaginary enemy planes.

"This was worth the wait," said Scoutmaster John E. Bresnahan, as he watched his Scouts begin enjoying the popular overnight attraction by pretending to fire shells over the Taunton River. "We've had some amazing overnight trips, and this ranks right up there. Every one of our kids and all our leaders are here."

Scouts sleep in the same quarters used by former crewmen.

Floating camp-out

In four years of World War II service, the 680-foot-long U.S.S. Massachusetts, affectionately known as "Big Mamie," engaged in more than 35 battles and traveled 225,000 miles throughout the world, never losing a crew member in combat.

These days, the ship is a National Historic Landmark, moored permanently at Battleship Cove, a nonprofit maritime heritage museum in Fall River, Mass., about an hour south of Boston. The Massachusetts's hatches are open to a new generation of recruits: young people who want to experience, albeit briefly, what life was like for the sailors once stationed on the ship.

To be sure, the ship makes a big impression: she contains a brig, a sick bay, engine rooms, assorted weapons systems, a Pearl Harbor exhibit, and turrets, ladders, and passageways to explore after sundown.

Radio room Morse code classes are a popular activity.

The sleepover program, dubbed "Nautical Nights," is a high point for Scouts. On this weekend, Scouts have traveled from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York for the adventure.

Instituted in 1972, when 80 Scouts were invited to sleep on the battleship's main deck, Nautical Nights have attracted a half-million campers, from as far away as California, Utah, and Canada.

Over the years, the overnights have expanded to include visits to Battleship Cove's three other historic warships (including the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. , named for President John F. Kennedy's older brother, a Navy pilot killed in the line of duty in 1944), classes in knot-tying and Morse code, historical reenactments,storytelling, and three hearty meals.

Troop 9 Scout Yang Fagan views the effects of an enemy shell on a piece of the ship, made during the Battle of Casablanca.

Taps signals lights out at 11, and reveille sounds at 6:30 for morning activities and cleanup before departure.

Overnights on historic ships have become increasingly popular (see sidebar). They bring in funds for nonprofit institutions that maintain many ships, and they help make American history meaningful to new generations.

"Yes, they like the onboard movies and the Morse code class," said the U.S.S. Massachusetts's weekend manager George Dimock, who has worked for the ship since 1962. "But the best part for kids is they're on an actual floating ship. That's a novelty."

Rack attack

The ship's bell records that "Big Mamie" was launched in 1942.

Adding to the realism of a visit to the Massachusetts is the fact that Scouts sleep in the same quarters as crewmen did in the past. Assigned to Bunkroom 10 in the Marine Berthing area, the Troop 9 Scouts surveyed their accommodations.

Roughly 24 feet by 8 feet, the space contained 15 "racks," metal-rimmed canvas cots anchored to the walls just inches away from each other.

"This could be interesting," warned Scoutmaster Bresnahan. "I've been told I snore like a bear."

Minus the troop's two female leaders (who stayed in the slightly larger Junior Officers' Quarters above), the Scouts staked out their racks.

"I like the top bunk," announced Vinny Clark, 13. "No one's above you."

Vinny examined the overhead, and directly above him was a patch still bearing visible scars from an eight-inch enemy shell had torn through that spot during Operation Torch in the Battle of Casablanca in 1942.

Yang and fellow Troop 9 Scouts Brian Nolin, Vinny Clark, and David Martin sport souvenir sailor caps as reminders of their memorable overnight on the historic battleship.

"Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself," fellow Scout, 13-year-old Dan Delay, commented.

Outside Room 10, 12-year-old Yang Fagan viewed the hole the shell had made above Vinny's bunk. That piece of the ship had been removed and put on display.

Such sights are part of the experience, said youth programs coordinator Mandie Owens. "We try to make the overnight on the ship as authentic as possible. You'll get to see the battle scars, you'll hear 1940's music, and all the announcements begin with 'Now hear this.' You might hear the clanging metal of the heater because some of the equipment is old. That's what the sailors heard."

Vinny Clark and other Scouts explore the ins and outs of the 680-foot-long ship.

Playing taps

Fortified by a dinner of chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and cranberry sauce, Scouts scrambled up and down ladders and through hatches, eager to explore the battleship's hidden corners.

An especially popular spot was Radio III, site of the Morse code class.

"Please sit down and put your headphones on," said Christopher Nardi, the ship's curator, as 15 Scouts gathered in the long narrow room at operating stations equipped with telegraph keys.

"Who knows what this is?" asked Nardi, as he tapped out three dits, three dahs, and three dits. Cub Scout Shane Lamprey, 9, of Pack 409 in Salem, N.H., worked alongside his Cubmaster and father, Paul, to decode it. S-O-S!

"Morse code isn't used that much anymore," said Nardi, after class. "But Scouts seem to like the fact that there's a mystery about these messages."

At 11 p.m., a trumpet call signaled all Scouts to return to their bunks.

On their battleship tour—with stops at locations like engine rooms, the brig, sick bay, and the radio room—Scouts check out the inside of an on-deck gun turret.

"We lucked out," said Troop 9 Scoutmaster Bresnahan. "We were next to a room full of Cub Scouts, but they fell asleep right away."

The night was not uneventful, however. "About every 40 minutes, this ancient boiler would go off, and it sounded like we were being shot at by a 5-millimeter shell," Bresnahan recalled.

"It didn't seem to bother the kids that much, just the adults. And luckily, no one had any problems with snoring."

Freelance writer Deborah Geigis Berry lives in Windsor, Conn.

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