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Battleship 'Big Mamie' returns

Jan 1, 2003

Upon boarding the battleship U.S.S. Massachusetts, drydocked in Boston, I entered the wardroom filled with the aroma of grandma's home baked bread and felt as if I were in a time warp. When I poked my head into the galley seeking the source of this wonderful smell I found an elderly gentleman removing a tray of freshly baked rolls from the oven. "Watch out! This tray is hot," said 84-year-old Harold Nye, just as he probably did when he was cooking aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts when it was commissioned back in 1942. Thirty riders were aboard for a historic 320-mile trip from Boston around Cape Cod, into Narragan-sett Bay, and up to Fall River. After having been in drydock in Boston, where the ship was repainted, Massachusetts was returning to its permanent berth in Fall River. It isn't every day that you get to ride on a battleship, since they have been relegated to the scrap heap or are now, like Massachusetts, serving as museums around the country. This is the only battleship I had ever been aboard, so I jumped at the chance to go along. While we were being towed on this trip, we had a portable generator on the aft deck that supplied us with power, light, and heat. While Nye had enjoyed his time as a cook aboard the ship, he chose not to make a career of it. When he was mustered out of the Navy at the end of WW II, he went back to Marion, Mass., and ran a successful florist business on Cape Cod When the Navy tagged the "Big Mamie," as she was affectionately known to her crew, for disposal in 1965, Harold and some friends organized the U.S.S. Massachusetts Memorial Committee Inc. The ship was released to them, whereupon she was towed to Battleship Cove in Fall River. She has become the cornerstone of a growing fleet of ships at the cove. Harold is one of the directors of that committee, but today he is back on duty serving as a cook. "Wouldn't have missed it for anything," he said of the tow from Boston (where she was drydocked for bottom scraping and paintingthe first in 46 years) to her homeport. Four levels below the main deck, 76-year-old Armand Vigeant, another of Big Mamie's three veterans of WW II, has been crawling about for days, cutting new gaskets and securing the ship's empty tanks. During WW II, he was in the supply department. His battle station, where he served as a hot-shell man, was in mount 10, one of the ship's 10 dual five-inch 38-caliber gun mounts. Vigeant said, "I came aboard the day this ship was commissioned in May of 1942, and I have sailed every mile that this ship has sailed whether underway on her own power or being towed as we are today. Altogether, I figure it is in excess of 400,000 miles." In a corner of the wardroom, a TV cameraman traveling with us sat in rapt attention while Bob Greening demonstrated his marlinspike skills as he worked on a rope mat. At 76, Greening is the other member of Mamie's original crew traveling with the ship. A fire-control man then, he worked at his battle station at the highest point of the ship, called Spot One, where he directed the ship's 16-inch guns. Said Greening, "I had the triggers in my hands, and it is some feeling of power when you squeeze the trigger and fire a 2,000-pound projectile 20 miles." Because of their fond memories of Mamie, Greening, Nye, and Vigeant are drawn to the Memorial and volunteer their time on weekends throughout the year. This 35,000-ton ship has a glorious war record, beginning at Casablanca for Operation Torch. On Nov. 8, 1942, the day of the invasion of North Africa, she fired the first 16-inch shells against the Axis Powers, specifically at the Vichy French battleship Jean Bart. Then, on August 9, 1945, her guns fired the last salvos of the war at Kamaishi on the Japanese mainland. The U.S.S. Massachusetts is a very lucky ship, for in her 44 months of action in the Atlantic and Pacific during the war no one was killed or injured while aboard. Today she is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Official Memorial to its 13,000 residents who died in WW II. Their names are listed by county in a special memorial room on board. We were towed by the 6,000-hp oceangoing tug, Esther Moran, and escorted by her sister tug Judy Moran. Our pilot, Bruce Fisher, of the Northeast Pilots Association, directed the tow up Narragansett Bay and the docking operation from atop the fire-control level. From high up there, he had a clear view of the ship and each of the six tugs pulling and pushing us up Narragansett Bay. Approaching Fall River hundreds of spectators lined the shoreline and small boats came out for a closer view. As the bow passed under the Braga Bridge, bright-orange flames shot out of six of her five-inch guns as she boomed a 21-gun salute. The salute was returned by a band and the cheers of 2,000 greeters, including many children, waving small American flags on the State Pier at Battleship Cove. Dock lines were put out as the tugs nudged us up against the pier.


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