The ‘Joey P’ reveals a destroyerman’s life at sea

The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was launched in 1945; its namesake died in a World War II bomber explosion the year before.
The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was launched in 1945; its namesake died in a World War II bomber explosion the year before.

One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.

The USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD850) was named for a local war hero and built at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy in only eight months. Commissioned on Dec. 15, 1945, the Gearing-class destroyer is one of the five National Historic Landmark ships in retirement at Battleship Cove at the confluence of the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay.

The “Joey P,” as the crew dubbed the vessel, may not be as intimidating as the massive battleship USS Massachusetts or as flashy as the sleek submarine USS Lionfish, but it’s the one that I always board first when I visit. My late father never talked about it much, but he served as a signalman on a similar “tin can” in World War II. Charged with defending battleships and aircraft carriers from torpedo boats, destroyers, wrote war correspondent John Steinbeck, were the “busiest ships of a fleet.”

David Lyon for the Boston Globe
Destroyer crewmen slept in narrow berths like this one below decks.

The Kennedy didn’t serve during World War II, but kept busy until it was decommissioned in 1973. It saw active duty off the coast of North Korea, joined in NATO maneuvers, and served as one of the recovery vessels for the Gemini space program. In 1962, President and Mrs. Kennedy watched the America’s Cup Races in Newport, R.I., from the torpedo deck of the ship named for his older brother, a naval aviator killed in a bomber explosion over the North Sea in World War II. Later in 1962 the ship claimed its place on the world stage during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As part of the naval blockade, its crew stopped and boarded a Greek freighter to search for missile components — a role it reprised in “Thirteen Days,” the 2000 docudrama starring Kevin Costner. The destroyer was acquired by Battleship Cove in 1974.


Below decks, a portion of the ship is set up as the National Destroyermen’s Museum, where displays trace the evolution of destroyers since the US Navy commissioned its first in 1902. A Department of Defense film and a number of photographic murals try to convey a sense of life aboard these so-called “small towns of the sea.” At roughly 390 feet long, the 3,540-ton DD850 carried a complement of 270 enlisted men and 18 officers — certainly a more companionable number than the 2,200-plus aboard the Massachusetts.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe
The grim-looking sick bay aboard a destroyer provided plenty of incentive for seamen to stay healthy.

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Which is not to say that there was a lot of elbow room. Steep ladders (“steeper than conventional home stairways” per cautionary signs) lead to tight quarters with narrow cots stacked three high. A galley kitchen served up meals for the crew, who ate at picnic-like tables, while the commissioned officers’ mess was stocked with china plates, cloth napkins, and silver serving pieces.

Visitors can peek in at engine rooms, the sick bay, the laundry, and the ship’s office with its manual and electric typewriters. According to a prominently posted sign, the one-chair barber shop was available for “authorized haircuts only” and anyone who missed his appointment by five minutes would have to reschedule. No tipping was allowed.

But it’s easiest to imagine the crew members of the Kennedy standing in front of the prominently placed Ship’s Store. A seaman might want a tin of sardines or can of Vienna sausages to supplement a particularly unsatisfying meal, or choose a Baby Ruth or Almond Joy for a snack. He could grab some cigarettes and a windproof lighter and pack of flints. He might follow up that haircut with some hair tonic or perhaps buy a deck of playing cards to help while away the hours. Or he might pick up some film to document the voyage or a packet of airmail stationery to write to a girl back home — just like my father did.

BATTLESHIP COVE 5 Water St., Fall River, 508-678-1100, www
Fall-winter hours daily 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults $17, seniors $15, ages 6-12 $10.50, active military with ID $8.50, veterans with ID $15, military in uniform free.

Patricia Harris can be reached at