The Navy Museum—a 600-foot walk through every era of the U.S. Navy from the American Revolution to the Gulf War— does more than display history. It is history. The museum is located in the Washington Navy Yard, which dates to 1799, and is on the Anacostia River.1 The building that houses the museum is as historical as the land on which it stands. The massive, high-ceilinged structure was the Breech Mechanism Shop of the Naval Gun Factory, once the world’s largest naval ordnance plant.2
The Navy’s history stretches before you when you enter the museum. Your eyes are drawn to a replica of the Constitution’s foremast fighting top, complete with striped-shirt manikin ready to repel boarders. Jutting into view just beyond are artifacts of World War II: a Corsair F4U and the barrels of twin 5-inch guns. Directly in front of you is a small exhibit on the Persian Gulf War. Behind a case of captured Iraqi weapons is a Tomahawk missile, which looks surprisingly small in this cavernous building.
High overhead are name boards from Navy ships, a favorite display of neck- craning veterans who wonder if their ships are commemorated up there. However, one name board, Pvt Harry Fisher, does not name a ship. That name board, from a Maritime Prepositioning Ship, was removed when friends of the deceased Medal of Honor winner told the Navy that the hero had enlisted in the Marine Corps under an assumed name. The ship was renamed, correctly, Pvt Franklin S. Phillips, and the pseudonym name board was given to the museum.3
Another bit of unexpected history that found its way into the museum is a work of art once banned by the Navy. The oil painting, “The Fleet’s In!” by Paul Cadmus, portrays sailors and a Marine displaying their rowdy charm as they try to pick up a couple of flirty, tight-skirted women. Cadmus was one of hundreds of artists employed by the Public Works Art Project during the Depression and hoped to have the painting shown at a celebrated exhibit in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1934- Navy officials, however, saying the painting portrayed sailors in a bad light, managed to get the painting removed. It was not exhibited for 47 years.
The museum arranges most of the Navy’s history chronologically, in niches that are lined up along a broad central walkway. The niches vary in size, and one, devoted to the Civil War, will be enlarged; the level of expansion is dependent upon the museum’s modest budget.
The niche devoted to the Revolutionary War has among its objects a model of a 26-gun small frigate, made entirely of ivory, including sails and lines. Although the model is mostly an aesthetic curiosity, she conjures up history, for she is typical of the frigates in the fleet that France sent to aid her American allies in 1778.
Across the museum, in a case of its own, is another offbeat memento of the early Navy: a splendid silver cup presented to Richard Pearson, captain of the Serapis in her battle with the Bon- homme Richard. Pearson asked the captain of Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones, “Has your ship struck?” Jones defiantly replied: “1 have not yet begun to fight!” Jones won enduring fame. Pearson won the cup from grateful merchants whose ships he saved. “Pearson was doing his job and Jones failed,” says Dr. Oscar Fitzgerald, director of the museum, as he shows off the cup. “Jones should have got the convoy.”4
A 20th-century oddity is a silver- painted ship model made of nuts, bolts, and other scraps from some machinist mate’s shop. The model arrived at the museum as a gift from Admiral Arleigh Burke, who christened it “Bucket of Bolts.” Burke, says Fitzgerald, is the museum’s patron saint. As Burke was ending his tour as Chief of Naval Operations in 1961, he established the Navy Museum, which opened to the public in 1963.5
One of 14 Navy museums in the country,6 this is the only one devoted to an overview of U.S. Navy history. Nearly 300,000 people visit the museum each year, and about 80% of them are junior high or high school students, most of them on class trips to Washington.’ On a recent day, 23 buses were parked outside the museum. Inside, the echoing of hundreds of young voices made the place as noisy as it was when steel clanged on steel here in the gun factory era. The museum also serves District of Columbia schools, with special programs and tours tailored for students from first to twelfth grade.
Here are a few sights that two dozen third graders saw as Nancy Natter, a volunteer guide, took them and their teacher through the museum. They began by sitting quietly in the niche devoted to the War of 1812 and listening to Ms. Natter talk about the age of sail. Then, briefed on how wind can move a ship, they headed for a replica of part of the Constitution's gun deck. While kids stroked the black guns and aimed at imagined foes through gun ports, they learned that boys called powder monkeys—some not much older than these third graders—had carried gunpowder to the roaring cannon.
When Ms. Natter asked what they thought would happen if there was no wind to push the ship, one of the boys raised his right hand and solemnly answered, “They would die.” Ms. Natter patiently told him that being becalmed was a tough problem, but not a fatal one. She then told them about loading and firing cannons and about the use of cutlass and pike in close combat. She also talked about what the men of Old Ironsides ate and how they passed the time.
Next came the ironclads. In front of models and paintings of the Monitor and Virginia (originally the Merrimac), the class learned about the shift from sails to steam. They moved quickly through the evolution of steam, seeing first a model of a sidewheeler and then a model of an aircraft carrier.
Finally, the kids filed into a room and sat at a long, paper-covered table. Each was given a little paper cup of glue and a plastic bag containing a small wooden hull with holes for masts, a couple of dowels, and angular and rounded pieces of wood. “Make a ship model,” they were told. When a couple of kids asked for directions, they were told that there weren’t any.
“The boat kit idea was inspired by the Bucket of Bolts,” says Susan Silverstein Scott, director of public programs. “The wooden parts are like found objects.”
The semi-circle pieces in the kit can be gun turrets or sidewheels. The dowels can be guns or masts. They make whatever they want, write their own names on their models, and leave the museum knowing not only what a model is but also how models can tell a story of the sea.
Sailors during World War II also learned from one of the models in the museum’s extensive collection. This is a large, extraordinarily detailed model of an LST. Under wartime pressure to speed up the manning of LSTs, instructors showed prospective crewmen how the model worked and then sent them off to the real thing. Other large-scale, extremely realistic models include the Ranger, Forrestal, and Missouri.
The museum’s largest exhibit, “In Harm’s Way,” fills most of one end of the building and is an extensive coverage of Navy action in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The Corsair and the gun mounts—quad 40s, a 20 millimeter, and twin five inchers—dominate the exhibit. Kids love to aim the guns at the Corsair, to the dismay of visitors who know enough about the war to identify friend from foe. Kids who pay attention, however, can learn a great deal about the Navy’s war in the Pacific. The saga, from Pearl Harbor to the deck of the Missouri, is told by placards, posters, maps, models, and a variety of artifacts, including Short Snorters, a Japanese good luck flag, and a full-scale replica of an atomic bomb.
Other exhibits show the Navy’s roles in exploration and research. There is the wood hut in which Admiral Richard E. Byrd lived beneath the Antarctic ice for four months in 1934, and in the hut is the defective stove whose fumes almost killed the explorer.8 Hanging from the ceiling is the pressure hull of the deep- diving Trieste. Nearby is a mockup of a space capsule, its hatch well worn by the hands of countless junior astronauts.
One of the most popular features of the museum, the submarine room, is closed temporarily for renovation. Here would-be submariners of all ages once sounded the diving klaxon and peered into periscopes that stuck through the roof, providing views of the Navy Yard. The new submarine room will have interactive displays that will explain how a submarine dives and surfaces.
The Navy Museum is free and open Monday through Friday from 0900 to 1600 (summer until 1700); weekends and holidays, 1000 to 1700. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The museum is on M Street on the Anacostia River in southeast Washington. The nearest Metro stop is Eastern Market. For further information, call 202-433-4882.
Visitors to the Navy Museum should allow time to walk around the yard, the Navy’s oldest shore establishment.’ Ships and ordnance of the early Navy were produced here until 1961, when the yard became a ceremonial and administrative center. The Navy’s first 16-inch guns and the U.S. Navy railway batteries that Navy crews fired against German lines in World War 1 were also produced in the Navy Yard. (The museum has an exquisite model of a Navy railway gun.) Adjacent to the museum is an annex containing unusual submarines, such as the Italian Navy’s human-guided torpedo and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Kaiten II, a two-man human torpedo. The annex is undergoing renovation.
Scattered around a small park at the museum’s door are cannons and an interesting hunk of metal: a 26-inch armor plate that was to have been part of a Japanese battleship. Found in the Kure Naval Base shortly after World War II ended, the armor plate was shipped to the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, Virginia, where it was punctured by a U.S. Navy 16-inch armor-piercing projectile.10
Permanently moored at a pier off the museum parking lot is the decommissioned U.S. Navy destroyer Barry (DD- 933). Sailors trained by the museum take visitors through the ship, which served for 26 years in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. Another possible stop for the visitor is Building No. 58, site of the Marine Corps Museum, which offers a quick tour of Marine history up to Desert Storm.
Also on view, but not for touring, is the Tinget House, a neoclassical-style brick house built in 1804 and named for Thomas Tingey, a former Royal Navy officer who became a U.S. Navy captain in 1798 and served as superintendent of the yard for 29 years. He died in 1829, and legend has it that his ghost wandered in a long white nightshirt and a gold- braided top hat, a spyglass under one arm. The ghost supposedly disappeared with a wail in 1945 when the Washington Navy Yard became the U.S. Naval Gun Factory.11 It became the Washington Navy Yard again in 1961, but the ghost did not return.
1. Taylor Peck, Round-Shot to Rockets, Annapolis, Maryland, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1949, p. 11.
2. Ibid., p. vii.
3. Fitzgerald, Museum Director.
4. Fitzgerald. Also Nathan Miller, The U.S. Navy, An Illustrated History, American Heritage and U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1977.
6. Navy Museum Fact Sheet.
7. Claudia Pennington, Assistant Director.
8. Fitzgerald and Bryan, C.D.B., The National Geographic Society, Abrams, 1987, p. 68.
9. Fact sheet on the Washington Navy Yard.
10. Caption on plaque.
11. Peck, op. cit., pp. 11, 250-1.