September 05, 2018

Museum Review - USS Salem

While I was visiting Sister Bean in Boston, I decided to have the second Naval Gazing meetup at the USS Salem, a heavy cruiser preserved at the former Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. Two readers showed up (along with Sister Bean and a few of her friends) and we had a really good time.

sd, Chris Silvia, me, Sister Bean, and a friend of SB1
Type: Museum heavy cruiser
Location: Quincy, Massachusetts
Rating: 4/5, A good place to visit if you like ships
Price: $10 for normal adults



Salem is a unit of the Des Moines class heavy cruisers, the last heavy cruisers built anywhere in the world. These ships owed their existence to the naval battles off Guadalcanal, where the USN found itself dissatisfied with both types of available cruisers. The 8" guns of heavy cruisers had lots of punch and sufficient range to avoid torpedo attack, but fired too slowly. Light cruisers with 6" guns could fire more rapidly, but lacked range. The problem was that the 6" was the limit of a rapid-fire gun, as the shells were the largest that a single man could handle. The US responded by building an 8" turret that could fire at the speed of a 6". The result was one of the most remarkable weapons of the gun age, capable of firing 10 rounds per minute reliably. They were incorporated into ships a third larger than existing heavy cruisers, and reflecting other lessons of the war.

Chris looking through the periscope in Turret 3

Salem herself was built in the Fore River Shipyard, not far from her current home. She was laid down in July of 1945, but the end of the war slowed work on her, and she wasn't commissioned until 1949. She spent only a decade in service, spending a great deal of that time as flagship of the Sixth (Mediterranean) Fleet. The next three decades were spent in reserve, waiting for a call that never came.

The German midget submarine, with me for scale

Onto the museum itself. Salem is in a rather run-down section of the former shipyard, and the signage to get there is insufficient. We missed the turn the first time around, and had to double back. She's also only open Saturday and Sunday. Outside the gate, there were some interesting artifacts. The big one is a German midget submarine that was found off the coast of Maine after the war.

3"/50 aboard Salem

Onboard, she's in decent shape, although she could really use a coat of paint. Turrets 2 and 3 are open, giving a look at those amazing guns, although nothing else inside the armor is accessible to guests. But the lack of engineering and fire control spaces on the route was almost made up for by the fact that everything on second deck and above was open, and most of it looked to be in near-original condition. Machine shops, sickbays, galleys, anchor windlass room, and the like were all at least visible. Unlike most ships, Salem seemed to be using the galley, and there were extensive berthing spaces for overnight visits by Scouting groups. The 3"/50 AA guns were a particular favorite of mine, as no other ship I've been to has had them.

The galley aboard Salem. Note the 5" ammunition trunk running through the space.

The biggest drawback to this freedom is the almost complete lack of signage. Personally, this wasn't a big deal, as I knew what I was looking at and could give others context, but it would be a serious problem for a more normal visit. There was also not really a defined tour route, which resulted in some confusion in our group, and might well have totally baffled others. If Salem could solve that problem, it would be a vast improvement in visitor experience.

The breach of the center gun of Turret 3

All that said, I came away mostly impressed. While the situation on Salem could easily be compared to that aboard Alabama, I saw a spirit of trying to make do on a shoestring budget, and found myself rooting for the ship and crew.

The Turret 3 computer, which appears to be fully operational

The ultimate question, of course, is if you should pay Salem a visit. I'd encourage it, with a few caveats. First, try to do so on a Saturday, if possible. The ship was mostly empty on the Sunday we went, but the ticketing office told me that most of the crew are only there Saturday. Second, keep in mind the competition from Massachusetts. If, unlike me, you don't want to see every ship within driving distance, there are pros and cons to choosing Salem instead of the battleship. In terms of raw visitor experience, Massachusetts wins hands down. A lot more spaces are open, most notably the engines and the control spaces, and the signage is much better. But the logistics favor Salem. She's a third the distance from downtown Boston and 40% of the cost. She's much larger and more impressive than the Constitution and Cassin Young, and also just a charming ship to visit despite all the issues. And of the ships in the area, she's probably the one that most needs support.

1 All pictures are from my collection.

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