With veterans' help, old warship gets new life

Former sailors on USS Massachusetts pitch in to refurbish a storiedWorld War II battleship.

She survived Japanese Kamikaze strikes and the lashing of artillery fire off Africa. She provided cover at Guadalcanal and at the bombardment of Tokyo. And she safely carried American sailors through 35 major battles during World War II.

Yet the USS Massachusetts, one of the most storied battleships in the United States fleet, was ungracefully succumbing to time. Barnacles and algae on the ship's belly measured as thick as "War and Peace." Corroded rivets let water to seep into her hull.

Four months ago, the ship seemed ripe for salvage. But now, thanks to her wartime crew, "Big Mamie" is back in shipshape.

"She kept a crew of over 2,000 men safe during battle, and we were obligated to show appreciation," says Armand Vigeant, one of the veterans who helped lobby the state legislature for nearly $10 million to fix her up.

Mr. Vigeant, who served as the ship's store keeper during the war, says it's moving to see the Massachusetts spit-and-polished, because old battleships are almost never refurbished. Only about five World War II battleships have undergone any extensive repairs in the past two decades, mostly so they can serve as floating museums, as does the Massachusetts.

"The sight of a 35,000-ton battleship sitting out of the water in a dry dock is impressive," says Vigeant in a voice gruffer than Popeye's. He's right. Three lumbering cranes that were used to install 225,000 pounds of steel sheets look like Tonka toys alongside the towering mast of the battleship.

The makeover took four months and a small army of 300 workers - and is something of a coup for Boston's newly resurgent shipbuilding industry. To many, it seemed fitting that the city that built the Massachusetts in 1941 still had the ability to rebuild her 58 years later.

Three members of the Massachusetts wartime crew - Vigeant, the ship's cook, and a gunner's mate - even donated their time to help with the repairs. Their reward: an opportunity to sail with her as she plied the waters of the Atlantic one last time.

Accompanied by 37 other volunteers, the three mariners traded war stories as they rode the Massachusetts from Boston Harbor back to her home at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass. "It didn't feel much like the old days because we weren't shooting anything down," says Robert Greening, who served in the ship's gunnery squad during the war. "There was no tension in the air. But it was nice to relive memories."

Big Mamie was one of a handful of battleships to split time in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during the war.

"She fired the first and last 16-inch guns of the war," said Mr. Greening, spreading his arms to show the size of a 16-inch shell. "The Massachusetts holds a special place in the hearts of men like me."

Big Mamie first saw action Nov. 8, 1942, during the invasion of North Africa off the coast of Casablanca, where she came to blows with the French battleship Jean Bart. Five thunderous hits from Big Mamie's guns silenced the Bart. Later that day, she obliterated two destroyers, two merchant ships, a floating dry dock, and an assortment of military buildings on shore.

Mamie's few wounds came from light artillery fire from the battle. "Just dents," Greening remembers.

After victory, the Massachusetts returned to Boston for refitting. The homecoming was brief. Her next assignment was the Pacific theater. During her 3-1/2-year tour of duty in the South Pacific, the Massachusetts saw more action than most battleships in her class, participating in key invasions.

"Part of the amazing history of this ship is that we never lost a life during combat," recalls the ship's wartime cook, Harold Nye, who was again in charge of chow during the recent voyage. "I don't believe any other battleship can claim that."

Big Mamie was deactivated in 1946 and stricken from the Navy Register in 1962. She's now on loan to Battleship Cove.

"It's great to have seen the ship fixed up during my lifetime," Mr. Nye says. "I'm glad I lived to see her make history - again."

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