Family histories are as much a source of pride as of mystery and consternation sometimes. Our family stories cover a wide spectrum of experiences during the WWII years in all its theatres and from a multitude of perspectives and yet questions remain. Two of our grandfathers never liked to talk about the war and sometimes it took others asking to get our other older relatives started. My Mother’s father experienced the Pacific during the war. I remember listening to him be interviewed about his experiences during the war–it was the first time I ever heard him talk about his experiences and it took someone else to ask the first question. The war in the Pacific always seemed so far away.
When we went to visit the USS Cassin Young, my grandfather and the Pacific were on my mind. Ships too have their stories to share. The Cassin Young is one of only four WWII Fletcher-class destroyers left in the world and while she continued to serve until 1960, it was her WWII experiences that drew me to her. The United States Navy gave the USS Cassin Young to the park service. Along with the USS Constitution (still an active duty ship), it helps represent the American military shipbuilding tradition at the Charlestown Navy Yard, part of Boston Historical Park. The Cassin Young was built in California and commissioned on New Year’s Eve 1943. The destroyer was named after Cassin Young a Pearl Harbor Medal of Honor winner killed in the Battle of Guadalcanal. It was, and still is, unusual for the American Navy to name a ship after someone recently deceased–such an honor is proof of the esteem in which the Navy held Cassin Young. His picture hangs inside the ship and we learned that members of his family still come here regularly.
As we stepped aboard the USS Cassin Young, though, my first thought was that I would die of frustration (nothing like a little melodrama) as we explored the main deck. All of the passageways and ladders leading off of it were roped off and the more we walked around the main deck, the more I wanted to see. If I thought I was frustrated, it was nothing like the expression on our friend’s face. She looked ready to climb over the ropes and see the rest of the ship on her own.
Luckily, we thought to ask about a tour. If you truly want to see the Cassin Young, you need to sign up for the tour with the Park Ranger on duty. Limited to 12 people, Park Ranger-led tours leave three times a day (11 am, 2 pm and 3 pm) during the summer months. You can reserve a spot and come back later for your tour. The ship is open to visitors from 10am – 5 pm. Tours, like visiting the ship itself, are free. Due to the ladders and climbing involved, this is not a good tour for families with small children or anyone who has trouble with their legs. I can actually understand limiting the tour to 12 people, not only does the small number keep things intimate, the reality is that the ship’s corridors and rooms are narrow and were designed to maximize the ship’s space.
Our Park Ranger was a woman, ex-Navy and amazing. At first, when I heard her soft-spoken voice announcing the start of the tour, I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been–not only did she know the ship’s history like the back of her hand but she also dealt with the evolution of women’s roles in the Navy and successfully encouraged questions throughout the tour.
We began our tour at the ship’s bow. While we had come to see the ship, our Ranger started by talking about the Navy Yard and the dry dock in which the ship rests. Amazingly enough, the dry dock has changed very little since it first went into service in 1800! We learned about how the ship was built in a navy yard similar to the one in which we were standing. From there we were off exploring the off-bounds part of the ship and climbing up to the Pilot House. From there we descended into the ship, touring various parts of the ship including the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, mess, and the ammunition rooms located underneath the ship’s guns. We ended our tour back on the main deck with the story of a devastating kamikaze attack on the ship’s starboard side at the end of the war. By the time the crippled ship had limped back to Hawaii, the war was over and the nuclear age had started.
One last tidbit which our Ranger shared with us that I found both amusing and ironic–when the USA decided to sell off some of the Fletcher-class boats in the year’s following the war, the two main buyers were its former enemies (West) Germany and Japan! The USS Cassin Young’s story is one worth hearing and seeing; her history worth conserving.
If you can’t make it to Boston, it is possible to virtually tour the ship on the Park Service’s website here.
**Sailors on destroyers often referred to themselves as “Tin Can Sailors” in reference to the extremely thin hulls of their ships–as thin as tin cans.