Big Mamie grew up fast.
When the newly born battleship slid into the sea off Quincy, Mass., in the autumn of 1941, it made local headlines as the heaviest ship ever launched there.
Interesting, but not big news in a year that had seen Yugoslavia and Greece surrender to the Nazis, Germany's siege of Leningrad and bombing of London and the still-neutral United States' decision to freeze German, Italian and Japanese assets.
While the young battleship was undergoing sea trials, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Soon afterward she went to war, commissioned as the USS Massachusetts (the nickname came later).
Today, Big Mamie dominates Battleship Cove, the site of the largest exhibition of historical naval ships in the world. The grouping of five naval ships on the Taunton River brings 130,000 tourists a year to this former textile capital, also renowned for the Lizzie Borden ax-murder case.
It seems an unlikely spot for a naval tourist attraction, since there isn't a U.S. Navy base nearby or a local tradition of shipbuilding. Still, the area does have a claim on nautical history -- it was home base for the bustling and lucrative Fall River Steamship line, a major port for shipping textiles made in the city's dozens of mills, and the city's Marine Museum claims a large collection of Titanic artifacts.
Big Mamie, the length of two football fields and nine stories tall, dwarfs the destroyer, submarine and Russian missile ship in the cove. She is remarkably intact for a 60-year-old ship that saw action in the Atlantic and Pacific.
"A lot of people called us a lucky ship," one former crewman recalls on a documentary that shows below decks on the USS Massachusetts. "I'm more inclined to think we were a good crew that trained well."
It's that kind of pride that has kept Big Mamie afloat. Built to carry 1,850 men but home to 2,300 throughout the war, Big Mamie never lost a man in five years of war service and was fondly remembered by those who sailed her.
"Then [in the early 1960s], the Navy decided this old lady was ready for the scrap heap," Big Mamie said, narrating her own story for the documentary. "But it seems my boys hadn't forgotten me after all."
Through the efforts of her former crew and more than 5,000 schoolchildren who raised money, Big Mamie eventually returned to Massachusetts and became the anchor of Battleship Cove.
REMEMBERING WW II
Once a sentimental journey for the thousands of crew members and their families, most of the visitors who explore the USS Massachusetts today are too young to remember World War II. But they are not too young to be fascinated by the history, which will get another boost with the opening later this month of the much-anticipated movie "Pearl Harbor."
Michelle Gallant, the new marketing director at Battleship Cove, doesn't know if the movie will lure larger crowds to tour the steel gray ships, but she hopes so. Whole chapters of history will soon close as 1,600 World War II veterans die each day, she said.
"It's important that people do something now" to recognize the war's historic and patriotic significance, she said.
To wander these ships and chance upon crew quarters, the mess hall, the ship's newspaper, the bakery and laundry or to look out from the bridge past the 16-inch guns is to get a small feel for history. But it is at such a distance that the personal dramas are lost in a still-majestic ship, which smells faintly of diesel and damp.
Gallant hopes that veterans of the ships will soon be recorded for posterity and their experiences replayed throughout the ships. It will be old men who remember the 60-year-old battles, coffee brewed in 80-gallon urns and submarine bunks the size of park benches.
The spaces on the USS Lionfish, a submarine that served in Japanese waters during World War II and the Korean War, are as remarkably tiny as the guns on Big Mamie are strikingly huge.
The destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., named for President Kennedy's brother, an aviator killed in action during World War II, and the Hiddensee, a 1984 ship built in the Petrovsky Shipyard in St. Petersburg, fall between the sub and Big Mamie in terms of size. Both can be toured and are more easily negotiated than either of the others.
A SURVIVOR'S TITANIC TALE
Visitors who just can't get enough of ships should follow signs to the Marine Museum a block away from Battleship Cove.
Inside the museum, Marjorie Newell tells about that night to remember on the Titanic. As she tells it in an oral history that can be heard near a 28-foot detailed model of the White Star luxury liner, Newell was returning from a trip to the Middle East with her father and sister.
"It's a very tragic story I have," said Newell, who took to telling her story publicly in her final years after she'd moved to Fall River. She died in her sleep in 1992 at the age of 103, the last of the first-class Titanic survivors.
The three had been asleep for an hour or so when she was awakened by "the most awful, awful crushing sound." Her father soon was outside his daughter's cabin telling them to put on their warmest clothes and to meet him up on deck. She and her sister were petrified but got into the lifeboats. They never saw their father again.
Newell's story echoes that of many others in the glass-case displays.
Memorabilia include a Titanic deck chair, front-page stories from various newspapers, a bracelet dented when it was dropped in a lifeboat by survivor Lillian Bentham, and the story of infant F. Philip Aks, separated from his mother the night of sinking and reunited with her two days later.
At least half the museum is dedicated to the Fall River line, which was the way to travel from Boston to New York (via train from Boston to Fall River and steamship from there) for more than a century starting in the mid-1800s.
The ships were heavy with chandeliers, carved woodwork, frescos, marble, gilding, thick carpeting, sumptuous cabins and dining rooms. Some of the largest ships, the Bristol and Providence, had 240 staterooms and could sleep 1,200 passengers on the overnight trip to New York.
Staterooms were booked routinely by the wealthy, including Fall River's textile mill owners, who made their money when the city was the largest cloth manufacturing center in the world.
Interestingly, there are no tourist attractions related to the mills, around which this city of immigrant neighborhoods was settled. Fall River has a lot of history in its future, but there is no sign of exhibits examining the boom and bust of textile manufacturing, child labor and 12-hour mills shifts.
IF YOU GO
Fall River is on I-195, about 15 miles from Providence and Newport, R.I., 60 miles from Boston and 35 miles from Cape Cod. Tourism information is available by calling 508-324-2028, visiting www.FallRiverTourism.com or picking up brochures at the visitor's center in Fall River Heritage State Park adjacent to Battleship Cove.
WHAT TO SEE
Battleship Cove is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. All of the ships are open for touring, and the USS Massachusetts has a snack shop, offering all manner of sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and ice cream. Exhibits on the ships tend to be of the glass-case variety, with an emphasis on memorabilia from the World War II era.
Fall River Heritage State Park is 8.5 acres along the river, reached by wooden bridge from the Battleship Cove parking lot. Call 508-675-5759.
The Marine Museum, in the Battleship Cove area, has Titanic memorabilia and a film about its discovery as well as a comprehensive exhibit on the elegant Fall River steamship line. Call 508-674-3533.
The Fall River Historical Society is in a meticulously maintained Greek Revival-style mansion in the affluent "Hill" section of the city. It has a number of permanent exhibits, including photographs and memorabilia from the celebrated Lizzie Borden trial, paintings from the Fall River school, a costume exhibit, rooms resplendent with Victorian era furniture and more. Call 508-679-1071.
The Fall River Carousel, next to Battleship Cove, is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It is a restored 1920 Philadelphia Tobaggan Co. Carousel with 48 hand-painted, hand-carved horses and two chariots. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum, across the street from Battleship Cove, is in a former railroad car with memorabilia of the railroad. Equipment includes a rail switch, two small trains that children can operate, a caboose, a self-propelled diesel coach, a model steam engine and a boxcar containing a theater. The museum recently opened for spring weekend visits. Summer hours are longer. For more, call 508-674-9340.
WHERE TO STAY
Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and Museum might sound a bit ghoulish, but it draws more than its share of visitors. The inn offers a pair of two-bedroom suites -- Lizzie & Emma's Bedrooms, and Abby & Andrew's Bedrooms (this suite has a private bath) -- the John Morse Guest Room, Bridget's Attic Room and two additional attic bedrooms, each of which offer a double bed in a room with Victorian appointments. Breakfast is similar to the one the Bordens ate on the morning of the murders and includes bananas, johnny-cakes, sugar cookies and coffee in addition to other breakfast staples. Call 508-675-7333. Weekend tours resume Memorial Day weekend, and daily tours start at the end of June.
The Best Western, near the Fall River Industrial Park, is about 4 miles from downtown. Call 508-672-0011.
The 1873 House was a private residence until 1895, when it was sold and became the home of the Sisters of Mercy Convent. The doors to each room in the inn still bear the name of the saint to whom it was dedicated. Call 508-679-8990.
WHERE TO EAT
Waterstreet Café has eclectic and memorable cuisine as well as décor and ambiance. Seafood, steak, vegetarian, Middle Eastern and pasta dishes are available as well as a children's menu. Call 508-672-8748.
The Abbey Grill at the International Culinary Institute has been luring diners since it opened four years ago. The grill is the main dining room of the school, in the former Central Congregational Church on Rock Street, near the Hill section of town. The dining room is dominated by a stained-glass window, a crystal chandelier and the open-air kitchen/laboratory supervised by the school's instructors. Lunch, served Monday through Friday, is prepared by the students. The Abby Grill is open to the public, serving daily lunches and weekend dinners. Call 508-679-9108. The grill is open for dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The Regatta, just up the Taunton River from Battleship Cove, is known for its Italian food and its sunsets. Call 508-679-4115.