by Richard Campbell
On a suitably gray Memorial Day the Navy kept its jewel, the oldest warship in the world, the USS Constitution open for public viewing and presented a 21-gun salute in honor of those who have given their lives in service to our nation. For those of you who haven’t visited the Charlestown Navy yard recently to see the results of the twelve-million-dollar overhaul of this ship, the trip is well worth making if only to get on board and see presentations by the crew. From the perspective of a brief naval history up close and having a great day out, the Charlestown Navy Yard is an appealing annual summer ritual. Besides Old Ironsides, the yard contains the World War II gem, the USS Cassin Young, the Constitution Museum, and a host of interesting living displays of historical naval operations.
The honor of being one of the 100 plus crew members of the USS Constitution could be looked upon by those in war time service as easy duty compared with combat ready naval service overseas. But given our nation’s penchant for forgetting history, it would be very difficult to measure the value of this tradition. From inspiring young people to join to the service, to seeing Boston’s role in our independence up close to imbibe a sense of history, the US Navy knows not a dime is wasted. For the last decade the museum commissioned an elaborate study of the crew members lives who served the ship during its multiple victories during the war of 1812 and formulated a database that includes biographical information of the of the 1,180 man-crew during the period, adding much to the historical picture. Well researched and presented displays in the Constitution Museum also include many visuals and demonstrations kids will enjoy. Nothing beats climbing aboard the ship and seeing and hearing its guns go off in salute.
On the yard itself the Cassin Young, the World War II class destroyer is the second largest draw, maintained and managed by the National Park Service, this ship provides a look at the crammed quarters and mechanized environment US Sailors operated within during that conflict. About 170 of this class of ship were built for the Navy by Bethlehem Steel and this ship was commissioned in 1943. Though the Charlestown Navy Yard built a number of these Fletcher Class ships, the Cassin Young was built in San Pedro California. Weighing in at about 2,000 tons the ship performed a variety of duties besides battling with its various guns and torpedoes- escorting larger ships, fending off attacks on land and air, in battles throughout the Pacific theater against the Japanese.
Besides rescuing crew members from the USS Princeton in 1944, the Cassin Young also escorted larger vessels in service in the Philippines, the island of Formosa, and the assault on Iwo Jima. As a radar picket ship out ahead of air attacks to provide warnings of impending attacks it came under brutal Kamikaze attacks, including being struck by one of them on its starboard side. As NPS Rangers made clear, it is easy to forget when strolling around the still sitting ship what sailors must have endured in the high seas on this relatively small vessel, fighting for their lives day in and out. Called back into service in the Korean war, the Cassin Young and its many crews, sacrificed greatly to add multiple victories to the US naval history.
As the population of living World War II veterans dwindles down to zero, we turn a corner in war history that marks a decidedly different kind of warfare, and the technologies of that period look increasingly primitive; but there will never be any doubt about the tremendous sacrifices in that conflict, and its role in making the United States a premier power in the world. The level of sacrifice, as well as the unity of the nation in that period serves as a high-water mark for American military historians. As a microcosm of Naval history, the Charlestown Navy Yard takes the visitor through major conflicts on the sea, reminding us and visitors from around the world how and why the US Navy has served our nation from its inception to the present day. Be sure to take the MBTA boat from Long wharf to the Charlestown Navy Yard!