USS Massachusetts and Battleship Cove

I recently made a trip to the US to look at some interesting things like the USS Intrepid, the architecture or New York City, and Battleship Cove.  Battleship Cove is located in Fall River, Massachusetts, and hosts the South Dakota-class battleship USS Massachusetts. Additionally, the site holds the destroyer USS Joseph P Kennedy, the submarine USS Lionfish, and the East German missile corvette Hiddensee. Given that I only had an afternoon there, I ended up only looking at the battleship with a brief run through the submarine. It was that good, especially in company with an old friend who also had read up on how the ship worked.

Entry to Battleship Cove

A fighting machine

Touring the USS Massachusetts conveyed a clear sense of the purpose of a battleship: it is a fighting machine whose only job is to sail, shoot, and survive being shot at. Everything on the ship is clearly designed with a singular focus on that job, and you can just feel it.

There are guns everywhere on the superstructure: both the original 10 turrets with two 5-inch dual-purpose guns, and the added quad Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft mounts. Plus 20mm Oerlikons wherever some additional space could be found.

In its maximal wartime configuration, the ship had nine 16-inch main guns, 20 5-inch guns, 72 40mm guns, and 72 20mm guns. Not all of those mounts are still present, since some of the 40mm mounts had been removed in a refit immediately after the end of the war.

For some reason, the giant 16-inch guns did not feel all that giant. Maybe because they are not all that big compared to the rest of the ship, or because they are elevated so high you cannot really stand next to them.

The armor of the ship is hard to see, but there are some armored hatches and doors that show just what battleship armor looks like. This is the door to the 16-inch-armored conning tower.

A quite small battleship

As far as machines go, the USS Massachusetts is objectively large – 35000 tons and about 200 meters long. For a battleship of the era, that is actually not all that big, and feels quite small in practice when touring the ship. The open spaces and “interesting” area between the main gun turrets is not all that large. A lot of the length of the ship does go into the bow in front of the turrets, and the aircraft spaces on the stern is also quite long.

It does get rather deep – you can climb down four levels from the main deck, as well as up four. I.e., it is a nine-story building for the visitor today, and even more for the sailors when it was in service.

Map from the ship, white indicates areas open to the public at some point in time.

Indeed, a key point of the South Dakota class was that the ship designers managed to reduce the size of the ship, allowing thicker armor on the same displacement as the preceding North Carolina class. The end result is a very impressive machine given the constraints of the naval treaties in effect at the time. The follow-up Iowa class added almost 30% to the length and 10000 tons of weight, to create a faster ship with slightly more powerful guns and a lot more internal room.


When walking around the ship and looking at all the gunnery systems, it is striking just how important men (and they were only men in WW2) were to keep the systems going. As designed, the ship had crew of 1800, which grew to 2300 after all anti-aircraft guns were added during the war. It must have been insanely crowded!

Each main gun turret required 240 men (if I recall correctly) to operate. Each 5-inch turret had a crew of something like 15 just in the top gun mount itself, plus a dozen or more down below to handle the ammunition. Each quad 40mm mount (at most, there were 18 of those) needed 11 men. There were two loaders per barrel. Once again, additional crew worked inside the ship to provide the ammunition for the guns.

There were manual processes involved in almost everything. People were moved information between two pieces of equipment, like from a rangefinder to a gun laying computer. People picked up ammunition, put it into a hoist, where more people moved it to the next machine along the line.

For example, the box that was the Mark 37 fire director contained seven men, including two whose job it was to simply communicate the observations to fire control! The Mark 37 does contain both a range finder, a sight, and a radar, so there was a lot to keep track of.


A ship with that many guns will consume a lot of ammunition in combat. It seemed that every other room we moved through was used to store some kind of ammo. The big guns and the 5-inch guns were designed into the ship from the start, while the 40mm and 20mm ammo seems to have been put in wherever there was a some space left over (they were not part of the original design).

Before this trip, I had never really thought about how ammunition was stored on board a ship.

The 40mm ammo came in square cans that seemed manageable by a single man, and that would be transported up by hoists retrofitted wherever it was possible. The cans provided a number of 4-round clips, and the number of clips and cans that a single gun would go through in a single engagement must have been totally insane. A small opening low in the wall behind each 40mm mount appears to have been the way that the ammo made it up to the guns.

The 16-inch guns had by far the most elaborate systems. Not surprising, since the shells are enormous (1200 kg each), and the powder used to propel them is the most dangerous thing on the ship by far. There are excellent videos (USS Massachusetts part one and two) showing just how this all worked, but here are some highlights from our visit.

Each aluminum can contained three bagged charges. Firing a single gun required six charges, or two cans. Each charge weighed about 45kg (90 pounds), and the crew would manually open the cans, get the charges out, and move them one by one from the powder magazine to the lowest level of the gun turret. There, the charges would be moved from the magazine to an intermediate area between the turret and magazines, and then into the turret proper. This was done to avoid flashes from the turret reaching the magazines.

Each bag contained a small integrated black-powder charge as a primer. That black powder was necessary to make the guns fire, but they also provided a significantly higher risk than the main propellant (which was engineered to burn fairly slowly and not be very sensitive).

The charges were moved using scuttles like these. Note the indicator on the wall, used to signal between the two sides of the wall what to do next and avoid having an open path from turret to the magazines. You could visit this “annular space” in the museum.

If a charge started to overheat, there were dedicated drums with water available to drop it in. Note the charge cans in the background:

Unfortunately, the insides of the turrets were not open when we visited, so we could not see the shell storage or loading mechanism for the big guns. There were quite a few shells on display though, and they were truly monstrous. Each one is almost as tall as me and weighs around 1200 kg. Even those monsters were moved around by man power (with a lot of machinery assist, but still).

Just the weight of the ammunition is awe-inspiring. With 130 shots per gun, the projectiles weigh about 1400 tons, plus another 400 tons or so for the charges. That is the entire weight of a small destroyer of the time.

Moving on to the smaller guns. You could visit the insides of a 5-inch gun turret, as well as a magazine and projectile storage.

The 5-inch projectile storage was quite elegant in its brutality. Each shell room contains a number of collapsible frames where the shells are simply stacked from floor to roof. As each shelf/frame was emptied, it was dismantled to provide access to the next line of shells behind it. It seems a bit strange to just pile the shells like this, but shells are pretty robust and they are tightly packed to not shift around as the ship rolls.

The room that was open featured that rack, plus the space where another one would have been. You could look into the magazine for the charges right next to it. When full, this must have been very cramped for the crew that moved shells and powder charges to the four elevators in the room (serving two turrets). The elevators took the charges and shells up to another handling room, from where they were fed through a second pair of elevators into the gun turret itself.

Inside the turret, one man would grab projectiles (25kg each) and one would grab charges coming out of the floor and hoist them into the gun. A powered rammer would then push it all into the breach, and the gun would fire. It is amazing to imagine that they could do this at a rate of fire of fifteen to twenty shots per minute. Lifting 25 kg at that rate is quite a workout!

The pace that the crew managed to achieve when well trained and motivated is really amazing, and indicates the value of humans in the loop compared to machines. A machine can only reach the pace it was designed for, while a human can often at least for short periods exceed the design point of the system. There is some kind of lesson there.

It would have been nice if the museum could have filled one of these ammunition rooms  with dummies showing just how the crew worked. It would have given a sense for the working conditions during battle. Now, it just felt like a rather large and spacious room- which I am sure was not the case.

Steam-punk electronics

One thing that I find striking with World War II is the way that electronics and in particular radars become critically important during the war. Compared to today, the equipment was incredibly primitive – but it did work, and it was very important in the fighting. But compared to the state of sensors and fire control just 30 years earlier during World War I it is night and day. Where a WW1 battleship would fight basically using human eyeballs and rather short ranges, WW2 saw ships firing using only radar, and at ranges up to 35km.

The electronics are huge and chunky and incredibly charming in my opinion.

Equipment for a Mark 34 anti-aircraft radar, which according to the information on the ship is one of the dish-style antennae seen above.  Not sure which one, unfortunately.

This was found in a room helpfully marked “TBX Equipment”:

Telephones were used to communicate around the ship. This is a connector for an auxiliary battle telephone, whatever that means.

Note how the telephones are held at both the top and bottom so that they do not fall out in case the ship encounters hard seas or is hit in combat

Life on board

I really like it when military museums show parts of everyday life for the soldiers and sailors. Like this note from the bakery on board the USS Massachusetts:

Using 50-pound bags of flour from the flour magazine. Incidentally, this magazine was not considered all that important and was located in the fairly lightly protected superstructure.

This incinerator had no information about it, but presumably it was used to dispose of garbage.

Other things

There were some other exhibitions on board the USS Massachusetts that were not directly about the ship itself. Among them, I found this Fritz-X:

There was also this wonderful model of the cruiser USS Saint Paul. It is built in brass and was used in radio signals testing. Basically, it is a simulated ship! Whenever changes were made to the antennas or superstructure of the ship, they would first be tested using the model to understand the effects on other systems. A very analog simulation, but a simulation indeed.

Compared to the intrepid

I also visited the Intrepid museum in New York, and the two museums are quite different in style and feel. The Intrepid is really a big grab bag of cool stuff, especially planes – including a Concorde and an actual Space Shuttle. But it is not as interesting as a ship as the USS Massachusetts, as it was in use for much longer and was renovated and updated. The USS Massachusetts is a snapshot in time from the end of the battleship era, and was never renovated or put back into service like the Iowas were.

The USS Intrepid Museum in New York

The were many more visitors to the Intrepid, and the Intrepid is a much more refined and slick experience compared to the USS Massachusetts and Battleship Cove. But that meant that it was much more relaxed and open at Battleship Cove – you really felt welcome to roam around the ship and rarely getting in anyone’s way. Indeed, it was so relaxed that we almost got locked in – we had to leave with the last staff through the staff exit as they apparently missed us since we walked through the Lionfish right at the end of the visit.

The ships at Battleship Cove seem to be in much worse shape that the Intrepid. There is rust everywhere on the outside and the teak deck could do with a replacement. Half the deck of the Lionfish is missing. Maintaining something this old and big requires a lot of people, and it doesn’t seem to me that the museum has the resources to keep things in good shape (repainting and fixing the ship was the kind of job that used hundreds or thousands of sailors back in the day). I can only hope they can find the money to give all of the ships an overhaul so that they can keep being open to the public. After all, the ship is already 80 years old.

The Hiddensee was closed entirely, as it had developed some damage during the winter.

Control room on the USS Lionfish. I love these old-style controls.

Getting there

I had made New York City my base for the trip, and somehow I totally messed up my understanding of the distances involved in getting to Battleship Cove from New York… I thought it would take me like two hours to drive, while in reality it is more like four (with a bit of traffic). But I had decided to go there and set up a meeting with an old friend, so there was no turning back. In the end, I stayed overnight in a hotel in Fall River, giving me plenty of time to look at the ships.

A funny side effect was that I managed to pass by five US states in a single trip: New Jersey (Newark airport), New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. NY, CT, and RI were new to me. I have changed planes at Newark before, and visited Boston many years ago.

On my way back to NYC, I took the chance to take a look at the very beautiful lighthouse in Watch Hill.

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