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Charlestown Navy Yard June 20, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in History.
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I recently visited the Charlestown Navy Yard in Charlestown. This historic site features the USS Constitution and the USS Cassin Young.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the navy yard.

1. A sailor had to consume fairly unappealing rations during his stint on the USS Constitution. Breakfast usually consisted of tea and a biscuit. Also, lunch usually consisted of a stew made with salted pork or fish along with hardtack; to consume hardtack, sailors would wrap it in their handkerchiefs and beat it against the floor and ceiling until it shattered into tiny pieces that could be placed in their stew. Hardtack was made without yeast to guard against spoilage during long voyages. I’m curious as to what the sailors ate for dinner.

2. Wood actually served as the primary construction material for Old Ironsides. In particular, live oak provided the ship with a neat defense mechanism due to its density. This would negatively impact the ship’s buoyancy, though, so layers of white oak were used to cover the live oak. Also, ship knees were used to bolster the lower deck of the ship due to the placement of heavy cannons on the main deck.

3. The USS Constitution earned its nickname at its first victory, which involved a tussle with the HMS Guerriere. In that engagement, Captain Isaac Hull ordered his men to hold their fire until he gave the appropriate command. His sailors bravely obeyed while Old Ironsides approached her enemy, until he finally gave the order with about 25 yards separating the two ships. A series of well-aimed shots, coupled with a fortuitous collision between the ships, toppled the Guerriere’s masts and forced her to surrender.

4. Cassin Young served bravely during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. On that tragic day, he commanded the supply ship USS Vestal and rescued several survivors from the USS Arizona; he later beached the Vestal which allowed her to be salvaged. He was later killed in action aboard the USS San Francisco during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

5. Like other Fletcher-class destroyers, the USS Cassin Young featured an impressive array of armaments, including MK-7 and MK-9 depth charges, torpedoes, 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns and 5-inch guns that could be used for shore bombardments. The depth charges were later replaced by hedgehogs, which were fired from a spiky apparatus and were more accurate in terms of engaging enemy submarines.

6. All of the aforementioned armaments were of little use in the face of Japanese kamikaze attacks, which hit 88 American destroyers during World War II. The USS Cassin Young was struck twice during the Battle of Okinawa, but recovered to fight another day (and float in the Charlestown Navy Yard). After these kamikaze attacks, it was determined that placing two 40mm “ack-ack” guns per gun mount was insufficient, and so they were later upgraded to include 4 guns per gun mount.

7. James Leander Cathcart was a pivotal figure during the run-up to the Barbary Wars. Cathcart had been captured by pirates from Algiers and forced into manual labor in service of the dey of Algiers. Due to a combination of his resourcefulness and good fortune, he was able to rise through the ranks in Algiers. He eventually obtained his release and later returned to the Mediterranean as the chief negotiator between the U.S. and the bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli.

8. In one of the earliest incidents of the Barbary Wars, William Bainbridge made the mistake of having the USS Philadelphia pursue a Tripolitan gunboat into shallow waters, where it ran aground. The Tripolitans captured it and towed it into Tripoli’s harbor, which forced the Americans to hatch a plan to destroy it to prevent the Tripolitans from using it against their ships. To execute this plan, Stephen Decatur led the USS Intrepid on a daring raid that resulted in the burning and destruction of the Philadelphia.

9. The Barbary Wars dragged on from 1803 to 1805 with no apparent end in sight. To break this deadlock, William Eaton came up with a daring gamble. He had seven U.S. Marines join a combined force of roughly 400 Arabs and Greeks in Alexandria. They then undertook a punishing march of almost two months through the deserts of North Africa until they reached Tripoli’s second-largest city, Derne. A combined land and sea assault on Derne followed and the Tripolitans were soundly defeated, which led to the cessation of hostilities and a notable line in the Marines’ Hymn.

10. Old Ironsides achieved two more stirring victories during the War of 1812 after its triumph over the Guerriere. In one engagement, William Bainbridge redeemed himself after his disastrous command of the Philadelphia by defeating the HMS Java. At that time, the British were still scoffing at the new American frigates, which cost them dearly in this encounter. In another tussle, Charles Stewart brilliantly defeated two British frigates, the HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. Stewart used some clever maneuvers, including a well-executed backwards glide that bamboozled the British, to engage each opponent individually. Ironically, this battle occurred after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, since news traveled slowly in those days.

The tour guide on the USS Constitution was quite helpful and described a virtual treasure trove of useful facts along the way. I also enjoyed touring the USS Cassin Young and comparing/contrasting the two ships; in particular, I was struck by the massive upgrades in terms of safety precautions/regulations that had occurred in the US Navy over 150 years of plowing the high seas. In addition, I enjoyed browsing the exhibits at the USS Constitution Museum, especially since it offered free admission.

In terms of minor quibbles, having to go through a security checkpoint to reach the USS Constitution Visitor Center was a bit annoying. It would probably have been more efficient to set up a checkpoint just before one boarded the USS Constitution itself.

Overall I enjoyed my time in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and I would definitely recommend browsing it during a pleasant summer afternoon.

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