QUINCY, Mass. — When you step aboard the USS Salem, you won't have to give way to presidents or kings and queens or the like. They've already been there.
The one-time flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Second Fleet in the Atlantic has served host to the former Shah of Iran, the king and queen of Greece, the president of Lebanon and other notables.
Built at the former Bethlehem Steel Co.'s Quincy Yard, launched March 25, 1947, and commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on May 14, 1949, the Salem now is a museum moored near its birthplace.
Visitors to the heavy cruiser get the feeling right away that the warship is not so much restored as preserved, and they are right. The Salem came out of its 35-year stint in "mothballs" in October 1994 in very good shape, still bearing much of its original paint. Volunteers now keep the vessel shipshape, painting where needed and making repairs.
"I had a flashback," said John F. Connors, 68, of South Attleboro, who served in the U.S. Marine detachment to the Salem from 1956-58 and now is a volunteer guide and archivist. "I knew right where to go."
A visit to the Salem could easily be a two-trip event, because there is a lot to see. You could join in a guided tour, during which you will learn the history surrounding the well-traveled vessel. On another trip, you can take a self-guided tour using a map that shows the deck plans on the 717-foot ship. And you can do a lot of walking.
"If you stood the ship on end, it's taller than the (60-story) John Hancock building downtown Boston," says Michael Condon, 46, of Cohasset, executive director of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum and USS Salem.
You can poke around the Salem from stem to stern, and up to the bridge and the pilot house, with only certain areas or rooms not open to visitors — such as the archives room or the still-in-operation machine shop. Check out the restored barber shop and dentist office.
Of special interest to lovers of history are the four "Memorial Rooms," filled with pictures, old military uniforms, swords, pistols and rifles and other memorabilia. Then there's the Model Exhibit Display Room — with a 12-foot shiny brass model of the USS St. Paul and dozens of models, small and large, of other ships.
Stop by the brig, where miscreants aboard the ship were put for breaking rules. Prisoners only slept in one of the two cells, and joined work crews during the day.
Note the garbage grinder which mashed the remains of meals until they were liquid, so that enemy ships would have nothing to follow when it was disposed of overboard.
After seeing where the crew ate and slept, the captain's and admiral's rooms above the main deck are quite a contrast.
Peek inside the turrets of the 8-inch guns forward or aft on the main deck. The ship also carries smaller cannon, including anti-aircraft batteries — none of which ever has been fired in anger.
The Salem offers an "Overnight Adventure" for Boy Scout troops or groups of students. Besides spending the night in a former crew berth and eating in the crew's mess deck, activities include radar tracking, simulated firefighting, first aid lessons and scavenger hunts. The ship's mess rooms also are available for birthday parties and other events.
On display outside next to the gangplank is a gray, two-person German sub captured during World War II. Bearing the number 075 and a black German cross, Connors said it is one of two still existing — the other is at a Chicago museum, which gave the Salem its sub.