Off the Beaten Path: National Museum of the U.S. Navy gives public a sense of living on warship

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Her 26 years of naval service helped shape U.S. history — from participating in the U.S. blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to destroying more than 1,000 enemy structures in the Vietnam War five years later.

But the USS Barry (DD-933) hasn’t moved from her moorings on the Anacostia River beside the Washington Navy Yard since being decommissioned in 1982. Even Hurricane Sandy was only able to sway her about a foot.

The destroyer’s runged walkway extends onto the river walk, welcoming Navy personnel to use her as a ceremonial venue for retirements, promotions, weddings, even baptisms. During summer months, the public is invited to explore the warship as a museum — and as an eerie, haunted ghost ship in October.

According to Petty Officer 1st Class Tristan Stull, the ship’s chief engineer, today’s vessels are set up in a similar manner to the Barry, so tourists get an accurate sense of what it’s like to live on a destroyer.

Visitors enter onto the Anti-Submarine Rocket Launcher deck, where a large torpedo launcher sits in the middle of the space. From here, visitors free to wander the ship’s many hallways.A trip down the ship’s stairs, or “ladder-well,” reveals the crew’s berthing area: a small room holding dozens of bunk beds with very little space between. All beds are fitted with white sheets and sized to a standard 6 feet by 3 feet.

The USS Constitution's fighting top greets visitors as they enter the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard. (Tim Comerford/U.S. Navy)

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The USS Constitution’s fighting top greets visitors as they enter the National ... more >

“The only addition today is a curtain between the beds,” Petty Officer Stull said. “As you can see, not much privacy available.”

With 315 enlisted personnel and 22 officers aboard, space proved extremely limited. All personal items, uniforms, and street clothes needed for six months at sea had to fit under the bunk or in a small locker.

Firefighting and other damage control gear sits in the corner of the room.

“A lot of that equipment is still used in the navy today,” Petty Officer Stull said. “We continue to use it because it’s all tried and true. It takes a lot for the Navy to switch things out.”

From the berthing area, narrow hallways lead to a small post office and an infirmary, then open up to the ship’s galley and mess decks, which contain blue lunch tables that seat up to four people.

At the rear of the galley is a small window through which meals were served to the boardroom, a separate dining room for officers. Unlike the mess deck, which resembles a school cafeteria, this wood-paneled room features a long table for formal meals and meetings, and a vinyl yellow couch.

“It’s very ‘Brady Bunch’ ‘70s decor, but this was their area where the doors were shut, and no enlisted people would be coming in. Officers could let down their stoic faces and be real people,” Petty Officer Stull said. “That was a big thing for them.”

The officer’s staterooms also contrast the crew’s berthing room. Each officer’s room houses only two people, and includes a bathroom and a sizable closet.

“We had to put this golf bag in the closet right here just to exaggerate a bit, stick it to ‘em,” Petty Officer Stull joked. “You’ve got four guys sharing a bathroom here, down in the berthing room its about 60 guys to four bathrooms.”

Climbing up a floor allows visitors to access the bridge, the ship’s control station. Windows line the entire front, and two chairs, reserved for the captain, sit above the others. Having two chairs allowed the captain to sit on either side of the room depending on where he needed to see, Petty Officer Stull said.

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