Patriotic feelings stir inside you at military museums, and the smell of salt air and the sight of an American flag stiffened in a coastal breeze may enhance those emotions. Touring a massive battleship or aircraft carrier or ducking through the cramped passageways of a submarine bring home the realities faced by the men and women who served on these vessels.
Here are five nautical destinations that are geared up and ready to welcome your groups aboard — although one does lack the bonus of a sea breeze.
You can’t get much more historic and patriotic than the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides.” The venerable 54-gun frigate was built in 1797 and earned its nickname in the War of 1812 when British cannon fire from the HMS Guerriere bounced off its thick wooden hull.
Today, it is the oldest commissioned warship afloat and America’s Ship of State. It is crewed by U.S. Navy personnel who are stationed onboard as interpretative historians. Inspecting the ship sets the stage for the nearby USS Constitution Museum, where you can explore the sailing ship’s full story.
While the museum is a self-guided attraction, Chris Kauffman, manager of interpretation and visitor services, advises to you to look for gallery programs, which change frequently and are available to all visitors. Among them are building a boat from aluminum foil and racing it against another boat and constructing a cannon. (The cannon’s power comes from an Alka-Seltzer tablet, and the projectile is a 35-millimeter film canister.)
Another tour opportunity, according to Kauffman, is to request an Anatomy of Victory tour. This 25-minute docent-led tour first focuses on the construction of Old Ironsides and then on the life of its War of 1812 crew. It can be participatory, with opportunities to swab a deck, furl a sail or rest in a hammock.
Old Ironsides and the museum are at the Charlestown Navy Yard within the National Park Service’s Boston National Historic Park. The Charlestown Navy Yard, established in 1800, was one of America’s first six navy yards and was active for 174 years. During World War II, 50,000 workers were on site.
The museum’s building dates to 1833 and once housed giant steam-powered pumps for a granite dry dock.
USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway missed the war during which it was built, was a major player in subsequent engagements, was a sanctuary for Americans fleeing an erupting volcano and in retirement became a major visitor attraction in San Diego.
Named for the critical Battle of Midway in World War II, she was built in only 17 months and was commissioned just one week after the war ended. That, however, was when she began the longest tenure of any 20th century aircraft carrier. She played roles in the Cold War, in the Vietnam War (both in combat and in the dramatic evacuation of Saigon in 1975) and in the rescue of 1,800 Americans when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.
The massive ship has many stories to tell, and she has a not-too-secret weapon to communicate those stories — a cadre of approximately 650 docents.
“San Diego is a Navy town, so we have many Navy veterans who volunteer,” said Joe Wagstaff, travel industry sales manager for the USS Midway Museum. “They bring the ship to life.” There are about 20 docents on board every day, particularly on the flight deck and “on the island” (the bridge).
Every visitor gets an audio tour device, and locations on the tour trigger recorded messages from sailors. The normal tour covers three levels — the flight deck, the hangar deck and below decks, where the everyday work of the ship took place. There also are private one-hour docent-led tours you can book for your group.
The Midway’s aircraft inventory is impressive, taking you from the propeller-driven planes of the 1940s to the jets that flew in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. Several helicopters are in the collection, too.
Also impressive is Cafe 41 (41 is the ship’s hull number), the ship’s main food facility for guests. It is fresh off a $7 million renovation and comes with a major bonus: Eighty percent of the cafe is open-air, and as Wagstaff said, “It delivers one of the best views of San Diego to be found.”
USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park
The USS Alabama, the centerpiece of Battleship Memorial Park, is one big hunk of steel. The massive ship — 680 feet long and displacing 45,000 tons — almost became scrap metal.
When fully staffed, there were 2,500 sailors aboard — and as with all big ships, those sailors had multiple responsibilities. Being ready for battle was only one. Others were more mundane, but totally necessary — being machinists, cooks, bakers, pharmacists and chaplains, even barbers and tailors. Those workaday realities resonate, along with the drama of the battleship’s immense artillery that get so much attention, when you tour the floating city.
The USS Alabama served in the Atlantic and the Pacific and led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay on September 5, 1945, at the end of World War II. However, the mighty ship was decommissioned in 1947 and scheduled to be scrapped in the 1960s. That was when patriotic Alabamians spoke up. The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park opened in 1965 and remains a major visitor attraction.
A second piece of U.S. Navy history arrived in 1969, the submarine USS Drum, also from World War II and also a National Historic Landmark. The Drum is the oldest American submarine on public display. When you tour the cramped quarters and workspaces of the 72-member crew, ask about a canine crewmember named Stateside.
During your tour, look for the Drum’s cartoonish insignia — an octopus wearing a sailor’s hat and pounding on a marching band drum. If the style looks familiar, it should. The artist was Walt Disney.
Aircraft, tanks and other military equipment also are part of Battleship Memorial Park. Among the airplanes is a Red-Tail P-51 fighter, the plane flown by the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Their training base is another Alabama group tour favorite.
Charleston, South Carolina
The Fighting Lady, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, is the centerpiece of the multi-faceted Patriots Point attraction on Charleston Harbor. Along with the Yorktown are the USS Laffey (nicknamed the “Ship That Wouldn’t Die” after it survived a massive kamikaze attack), the three-acre Vietnam Experience and the Medal of Honor Museum.
For a patriotic destination, Patriots Point truly fills the bill, and its setting is especially appealing. It is just across the water from the famed Charleston Battery and within sight of the beautiful Arthur Ravenel Bridge.
The Yorktown has an event-filled history. She was under construction as the Bon Homme Richard but became the Yorktown to honor a ship of that name sunk in the strategic World War II Battle of Midway. She came out of the shipyard at Newport News, Virginia, in just 16 1/2 months and quickly saw action in the Pacific, earning 11 battle stars.
She was modernized in the 1950s to carry jet aircraft, served in Vietnam and even recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts and capsule in 1968. She was decommissioned in 1970 and found a home in Charleston in 1975.
New in 2022 is a group tour called “Wings and Things,” according to public information officer Mayci Rechner. That tour focuses on the Yorktown’s many aircraft, ranging from World War II F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat fighter planes to the F/A-18 Hornet, which could exceed 1,900 miles per hour. Every aircraft aboard is of a type that flew from the Yorktown.
The Medal of Honor Museum is located on the Yorktown and honors the recipients of the nation’s highest award for bravery. The museum, the Yorktown and the Laffey all are part of the overnight “Live Like a Sailor” program.
Wisconsin Maritime Museum
If you think all submarines are built in saltwater shipyards, think again. The Wisconsin Maritime Museum honors the 28 World War II submarines built in Manitowoc. That’s 28 out of the 223 built during the war, so it was a significant contribution to the war effort, even if it did take some travel time to get to the Atlantic Ocean.
The USS Cobia is the focal point of the museum. Even though it wasn’t one of the Manitowoc 28, it’s of the same class, and it holds quite a distinction — it’s listed as an Airbnb property. They call it Sub BNB, and groups are welcome.
“We can customize your overnight tour,” said Kevin Cullen, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “You have hours and hours to explore.” Overnight guests also get after-hours access to the landside museum, which goes far beyond the area’s submarine era.
The museum was founded in 1969 as the Manitowoc Submarine Memorial Association and evolved into the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, one of the largest maritime museums in the region. Among its goals is preserving the maritime history of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region.
Manitowoc is along the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary and is the repository of the state’s shipwreck artifacts. A permanent gallery, Wisconsin’s Underwater Treasures, explores stories of the many sinkings. Another permanent gallery is the Wisconsin-Built Boat Gallery, which celebrates a variety of wooden boats. Cullen called these boats “true works of art.”
New this year is an amenity groups can use to wrap up a tour. It’s the Sub Pub, a rooftop watering hole where you can enjoy panoramic views of Lake Michigan and an Old Fashioned, Wisconsin’s trademark drink.