Battleship Cove, Fall River: Good for history buffs and older kids

Battleship Cove (Maureen O’Gorman)

Drivers on I-195 crossing the Braga Bridge in Fall River, MA, find it hard to miss the large World War II-era battleship USS Massachusetts located directly below them. It is the main feature in a museum collection of retired naval vessels that is the largest in the world. Battleship Cove is a landmark that has drawn people for generations since it was established in 1965. This summer, the cove plans a full slate of attractions and events.

This collection, only 15 minutes from Providence, is a must-see for history buffs of all ages. It ticks so many boxes — military history: more WWII vessels than anywhere else in the world; local history: the big ship was fabricated just up the coast; Kennedy family history: the cove contains the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. named for President John F. Kennedy’s older brother (killed in action during WWII) and used in the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade in 1962. 

In the 1890s, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the president of the Naval War College in Newport, wrote an influential book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, arguing that all great world powers historically owed their prominence to having a strong navy. This sparked an arms race for naval ships, especially large “capital” ships with huge guns able to take on the capital ships from enemy nations. On December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, eight US battleships were destroyed or badly damaged, and the nation feared there would be no stopping the Japanese Navy from invading and capturing Hawaii. 

Commissioned just a few months after Pearl Harbor and in service for less than five years, the Massachusetts saw action in numerous battles in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of action. She was nicknamed “Big Mamie” by her crew and despite being in 11 battles, she never lost a man in combat. USS Massachusetts is an example of a local girl making good because she was constructed just up the coast at the Fore River Shipyard along the Weymouth Fore River in Quincy, MA. Her 16-inch guns could (and did) fire projectiles weighing almost a ton farther than 20 miles. Today, in one of the turrets, old training videos for sailors show visitors the process of loading and firing these massive guns.

Battleship Cove was first established in the 1960s to house the retired battleship and additional craft have been added to the collection regularly. A WWII submarine, a training plane, a landing craft, two PT boats, the destroyer Kennedy, and a post-WWII East German missile ship are all available to be seen, and most can be boarded and explored.

New for summer 2023 will be a permanent exhibit on the air war in Vietnam featuring two helicopters from the conflict that have been restored with assistance from original members of the crew. The grand opening is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

Summer Events at the Battleship include: a 1940s evening “Battleship Boogie” with period music and dance lessons (period dress is encouraged) on June 3 [UPDATE: rescheduled to June 24 due to inclement weather]; free admission for dads on Father’s Day; exhibits centering women in the military; and special events featuring World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and September 11. The site annually hosts fireworks for Independence Day.

Battleship Cove’s vessels are open seven days a week, 9am – 5pm. Tickets are $25 adult, $15 children; discounts are offered for seniors and veterans. Each ticket includes admission to the Fall River Maritime Museum, located a short drive from the cove, open seasonally for shorter hours than the cove, and covering a general history of seagoing craft with a noteworthy exhibit on the Titanic. Add-on tickets to visit the heavy cruiser USS Salem museum ship an hour away in Quincy, Mass., are available from April to November. Groups can book overnight stays for their members through the “Nautical Nights” programs.

Visitors should expect a lot of physical activity. Even some of the ‘easier’ self-guided tours will involve gangplanks, stairs and the occasional ladder. Tours that go through the superstructure or into lower desks will have a lot more climbing. Dresses and skirts are not recommended. 

This is a great place to spend the day with tweens and teens who like to climb and explore. There are nooks with interesting equipment, and rooms with interesting purposes, bunk rooms and baking rooms, ammunition rooms, and radio rooms. Some exhibits have better explanations than others but almost all at least identify the room’s purpose. The staff who maintain the ship are generous with information and willing to provide more in-depth explanations, but an audio tour or some QR codes might help you get more background. History lovers will not want to miss a single room or sign, and can spend all day viewing the ships, while less enthusiastic visitors can get through most of the site in a brisk 90 minutes.

Families with smaller children or babies will find it harder to maneuver their charges safely up and down the many ladders and through the many watertight hatches that require a person to step through an opening roughly the size of a batter’s strike zone. Taller people need to be aware of low ceilings and low-hanging items. On the Massachuttes there are four self-guided tours with color coded signage. The tours all pass near the officer’s wardroom (currently a snackbar), so it is possible to easily switch from one to the other. Sometimes the signage is a little confusing, leading to back-tracking, but a pamphlet with well-marked maps is also provided.

World War II veterans have largely passed from living history into the more distant past but their stories of sacrifice and endurance still speak to us. Ships such as the Massachusetts are not just monuments to the past, but are inspirations to guide us into the future. Battleship Cove is an exciting way to make the past come alive and see how world events touched and continue to touch us locally.

Battleship Cove, USS Massachusetts Museum Ship, 5 Water St, Fall River, MA 02721. Tel: 508-678-1100. E-mail: Web: Free parking. NOT disability accessible.