The Magazine of South Carolina

A Proud Tradition of Grey Steel

The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mt. Pleasant is one of the Charleston area's top tourist draws.

by Dan Harmon


If someone in the Navy mentions they serve aboard an aircraft carrier, your first impression might be less than overwhelmed. Just another ship. Maybe a bit bigger than most. Maybe with a little more activity to break the monotony of sea duty. But by and large, just another grey metal boat laden with sailors and armament.

Go to Patriots Point and experience, up close and HUGE, just what it's like to be aboard a carrier. You quickly realize that what goes on - not just on the blustery flight deck but on the service decks below - is anything but ho-hum. And when you consider that the Yorktown (CV-10), flagship of the Mt. Pleasant nautical museum, is a couple of generations older and smaller than what's plying the oceans today, you begin to grasp the enormity of America's naval power and tradition.

"I'll tell you what. You get your exercise around here," says Alan NeSmith, Patriots Point marketing director. "Up and down steps. Duck your head."

The Yorktown alone is a work-out. Seven separate self-guided tours are available on the carrier, each starting from the hangar deck. In brief:

The tour of living and working spaces takes you down two decks. You get to examine the mess and galley of the chief petty officers, then typical berthing, washroom, galley, mess and sick bay areas of the crew. Peeks into a variety of shops - torpedo workshop, electrical shop, cobbler shop, machine shop, dental quarters, etc. - impress upon you the fact that a carrier is, in effect, a small city, self-sufficient, able to handle virtually any human need that might arise. (The Yorktown carried almost 3,500 men.) This tour also features a number of exhibits: women in the military, maritime legends, a tribute to WWII escort carriers, a display describing the Imperial Japanese Navy and a tribute to the carrier USS Franklin.

The engine room tour, an optional extension of the previous route, descends four decks to the home of the proverbial "black gang." Naturally, its primary appeal is toward veteran sailors who've actually served in an engine room. "I've heard wives tell their husbands at the top of the steps, 'I'll be right here when you get back,'" jokes Dr. Steve Ewing, the Patriots Point historian.

Not to be missed is the tour of the flight deck and bridge. You climb to the galley deck and look in on the pilots' ready room, then scramble up to the flight deck and emerge onto the broad, flat expanse that once served as an airport at sea. Here, planes in combat and on patrol roared into action and later touched down to an abrupt halt via hook and cable.

Back inside the superstructure, you rise to the bridge - the highest part of the Yorktown open to visitors. In addition to the chart room and pilot house, you get to see the captain's sea cabin and sit in the captain's bridge chair. From the signal bridge outside, the view of Charleston Harbor and The Battery across the way is spectacular.

This tour also includes displays honoring other World War II aircraft carriers: the Essex, Hancock and an earlier Yorktown (CV-5).

The fourth tour showcases the air officer's stateroom, executive officers' quarters, tailor's shop and laundry. Exhibits on this deck honor African Americans in the military, more vintage carriers (the Monterey, Enterprise, Ticonderoga and Saratoga) and World War II battleships and cruisers. Other displays are devoted to the naval battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, and to the Korean War.

A descent to decks two-four takes you past the officers' galley, a typical officer's stateroom, the bomb fusing and rocket assembly area, the ship's brig and the print shop. Displays honor the USS Missouri and the Association of Minemen; there's also a signalman's display.

Tour Six features the captain and flag officers' in-port quarters. It's interesting to compare how life might have been from day to day for a captain or admiral with that of an enlisted man. More space, more privacy - but all in all, not much to "write home about."

The last tour is the recently opened Charles-ton Naval Shipyard Exhibit, covering the history of the facility from its opening to closing.

The hangar deck itself contains an impressive collection of aircraft, mostly from the World War II era. On the flight and hangar decks combined are about 25 aircraft. Old-timers thrill particularly to see the propellered fighters and torpedo bombers. A B-25 similar to the ones flown by Doolittle's raiders in their epic 1942 bombing of Japan is suspended in a corner of the hangar deck. Of perhaps more interest to younger generations is one of the museum's latest additions: an F-14 Tomcat like the Navy planes flown in the movie "Top Gun" and, according to NeSmith, "still one of the Navy's first lines of defense."

Nearby is a room very special to American veterans. The Congressional Medal of Honor Museum provides poignant, fascinating information about Medal of Honor recipients since the Civil War. Profiles chronicle the exploits of heroes like Alvin York, WWII ace pilot Butch O'Hare and Audie Murphy. More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded, and each is commemorated.

Other ships of the Navy get proper tribute at Patriots Point - despite their dwarf-ishness alongside the Yorktown. In fact, the real action story is the destroyer Laffey. Whereas it might be argued on KP shifts that the CV-10 Yorktown was "just another carrier" in the annals of naval history, the Laffey was by no means "just another destroyer."

Commissioned in February 1944, it participated in the bombardment of Normandy during the D-Day landings, then was transferred to the Pacific fleet. Off Okinawa in April 1945, the Laffey was attacked by 22 Japanese bombers and kamikaze planes. Almost a third of its 336-man crew were killed or wounded, but the enemy lost 11 planes to Laffey gunners - and the destroyer remained afloat. It became known as "the ship that would not die." Envisioning the action, one gets an eerie feeling while browsing the ship. Ap-propriately, the ship houses the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association Museum, as well as a destroyer memorial exhibit.

Coast Guardsmen can take pride in the cutter Ingham, which has a distinguished WWII record as well as earning the Presidential Unit Citation for duty off Vietnam. The Ingham served in the North Atlantic during the "Bloody Winter" of U-boat attacks in 1942-43 and sank the U-626. It also cruised the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Pacific during the world war.

Completing the Patriots Point fleet is the diesel submarine Clamagore. Commissioned near the end of World War II, the Clamagore operated for the next three decades in the Atlantic. Taking care to protect your shins and forehead as you traverse the bulkheads, you acquire a real appreciation for the amazingly cramped conditions under which sailors have labored.

New at Patriots Point is a replicated, true-scale Vietnam river support base. The Navy played a vital role in the conflict, supporting ground troops with their presence on the region's maze of waterways. A 31-foot patrol boat is near the entrance of the exhibit, which also has an observation tower, ammo bunker, Huey helicopters, jeeps, various types of huts and artifacts from the war. Visitors have been known to encounter Ret. Gen. William Westmoreland showing friends through the exhibit.

The 27,100-ton Yorktown remains the centerpiece of Patriots Point - its size alone makes it so. From its commissioning in April 1943 until its decommissioning in 1970, it won the Presidential Unit Citation and 11 battle stars. During World War II, it was in such Pacific conflicts as the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Okinawa campaign. Ewing, a noted World War II naval historian, says the Yorktown was known for its outstanding air groups during the last two years of the war. It was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Fighting Lady." The carrier later was on patrol during the Vietnam conflict and recovered the crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft.

It's undoubtedly the museum's main draw. NeSmith, who's been involved in Charleston-area tourism for 11 years, the last four at Patriots Point, observes that history is Charleston's leading appeal factor, according to surveys of the area's 5 million annual tourists. Exit surveys at Patriots Point, which draws 300,000 visitors a year, reveal that more than 96 percent come primarily to explore the carrier.

NeSmith is proud of the fact that the naval museum has regained its pre-Hurricane Hugo attendance levels; some Charleston attractions still have not fully recovered from the negative impact, he says. Patriots Point is especially attractive to visitors living out of state. That's because it's one of only four multiship naval museums in the country, and the Yorktown is one of the very few large naval vessels available for the public to visit.

The museum's attendance numbers include more than 14,000 overnight "campers," scouts and youth groups who get to sample what life is like aboard a naval vessel. The camping program long has been a vital teaching tool at the museum, which strives to attract a family-style clientele. Its staff of about 60 is kept busy maintaining the "fleet."

Operating on a $4 million annual budget, the museum is totally self-sufficient, supporting itself through ticket and gift shop sales and revenues from its adjoining golf course. The picture should be even brighter after the museum's hotel complex opens next spring.

Celebrating its 22th year, Patriots Point is a sailor's haven and memorial. It's also a fascinating place for the general public to spend a day. And if you're a maritime history buff, it's a peace of heaven on earth. Just ask Ewing, who was invited here as a consultant after he pointed out deficiencies about the museum in one of his books. He ultimately joined the staff full-time and now is at home aboard the Yorktown. Much of the exhibitry is of his design and handiwork.

"It really is a unique place," says Ewing, who was a consultant for the film "War and Remembrance" and currently is writing his seventh book, a biography of Adm. James H. Flatley Jr., father of the current director of the Patriots Point De-velopment Authority. "There's so much more here than the average person's physical strength will allow one to see in a day. It's just so vast, and it's the only place you can go to see some of these things."

Patriots Point is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Admission costs $9 for adults, $4 for children aged 6-11. For more information, contact Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, 40 Patriots Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464; (803) 884-2727.


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