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History and Heritage

Preserving the Past

The caretaking of USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD 850)

"It's a strange thing. They love the smell of the ship - all these destroyers have a unique smell. One of the first things they say when they come aboard is, 'I can smell it again. It's just like 1965'," said Richard Angelini, son of a former Sailor aboard the Kennedy and lead caretaker of the ship.

The destroyer, USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD 850) is no different in that respect. However, among the rest of the gearing-class destroyers, her sister ships, she stands out in many regards.

She was built in 1945, in Quincy, Mass. Named after Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a naval officer during World War II. She is best known as a Vietnam War era ship, but she served two tours in Korea, played an important role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even assisted NASA with the recovery of their space program's capsules. She did a few cruises in the Mediterranean Sea and just prior to heading back to her homeport of Newport, R.I., in the winter of 1972 she met her last battle with a harsh storm in the Atlantic.

"It was an interesting voyage home," said Michael Angelini, a former Sailor aboard the Kennedy. "Most of the career people aboard had never experienced anything of that magnitude."

"It was certainly an adventure trying to walk down the flight deck," said Michael. "The interior passageways were certainly a challenge as well."

Once the Kennedy found her way back home, the Navy assessed her and deemed that she was damaged beyond repair and would be decommissioned shortly thereafter.

Her decommissioning would not see the end of her arduous journey though.

The Navy was deciding whether she would be sent off to a foreign country or sent to the scrapyards, Ed Ward, Michael's French teacher from his high school stepped in with a third option.

Ward came aboard the Kennedy and unexpectedly discovered Michael in the ship's office.

"What are you doing on this ship?" asked Michael. "He said, 'Do you really want to know?' and he told me about the possibility of coming here to Battleship Cove."

Since then the Kennedy has been a museum ship in Fall River, Mass. She remains at Battleship Cove, along with USS Massachusetts (BB 59), USS Lionfish (SS 298), several PT boats and other historical exhibits. And since then, veterans have been coming aboard to participate in field days to help upkeep on the ship.

"We're actually the first destroyer or Navy ship type, as a museum, to create field days," said Richard.

The group consists of veterans, active duty Sailors, civilians, descendants of Navy personnel, and military personnel from other services. They report and live aboard the destroyer as if they're in the Navy and throughout the week they do restoration, paint, electrical work, and anything else that needs tended to.

"It's the most amazing thing in the world to go sit on the mess decks and converse with veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam," said Senior Chief Jim Weber (Ret.). "I'm one of the younger guys here that served in Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom, and we see how we all sit here and tell stories, we all have similar places we've been, with 40 and 50 years between the stories, it's amazing how the parallels are."

"We're not necessarily a crew, we're almost a family now," said Richard. "We come back, it's like having a reunion aboard this ship."

People travel from all over the United States to make their way to the Kennedy to be a part of her crew and her family.

"There are guys that drove from Idaho here," said Weber. "He paid his own way to work like a dog for four days. Where else would you see something like that happen? You drive across the country so you can pay to work harder than you've worked in the last five years."

Unfortunately, despite the dedicated hard work of these individuals, the Kennedy still needs more support.

"Museum ships depend on people," said Weber. "They need constant care and attention, think about an active duty ship, there's people on there chipping paint, busting rust. Well this ship, even though we don't have as many systems running, still needs to be preserved, we still have to keep the lights on, make sure the ventilation fans run and all of that stuff is done by volunteers."

"The ocean can take its toll on a ship just sitting in the water," said Weber. "It's critical that these ships get help and receive funding, because they have to go to the shipyards too."

"There's a lot of love aboard this ship," said Richard. "But when you're going into hull plating work, you're talking about millions of dollars, you need larger support, and we need that support or we're going to lose the vessel, and if we lose the vessel we lose four decades of Sailors and people that have given their time, and what this ship represents."

Despite the ominous possibility of losing the ship, the crew remains positive and keeps coming back every spring and fall to attend the field days.

"It's an opportunity for everyone to come aboard and relive old memories," said Richard. "For descendants and relatives to learn what it is like aboard a destroyer and learn the history of this type of ship and what it did for the United States Navy."