FALL RIVER -- Floating beneath the Braga Bridge in the heart of Fall River is a veritable armada: a battleship, a destroyer, a submarine, and a Soviet-built attack ship.
On land nearby are a pair of helicopters, a small plane, a landing craft, and, in an indoor exhibit, two PT boats and a Japanese motorboat.
This is Battleship Cove, the largest collection of historic military vessels in the world in terms of sheer numbers. It's a year-round attraction on the Fall River waterfront, where the Taunton River empties into Mount Hope Bay.
To say you can't miss it is no exaggeration. The big roads through the city, Interstate 195 and state routes 138 and 79, get so close that you can almost feel heat from the big guns pointed at you. History and military buffs, as well as those fascinated by the authentic stuff of battle, should follow their impulses and pull over.
The most prominent of the ships, and the one where visitors will want to spend the most time, is the USS Massachusetts, a Quincy-built battleship with a glorious World War II history. Nicknamed ''Big Mamie," the ship saw fierce action at Casablanca during the invasion of North Africa in 1942. For the next three years, it took part in numerous assaults, battles, and skirmishes across the Pacific.
Retired after the war, the ship was saved from the scrap heap by former crew members, who led a campaign to save it. It opened as a museum in 1965. It does not take much imagination to get caught up in Big Mamie's history. Viewed from land, its big guns aimed in all directions, the ship is a menacing sight, and one can imagine the dread it inspired when spotted off an enemy coast.
On the main deck, visitors can sit behind the weaponry and aim at targets on the horizon or crank an anti-aircraft gun.
Stepping below deck, a visitor is hit with the smell of old boat, a musty mix of paint and metal amid the low ceilings and narrow hallways. The second and third decks have seemingly endless places to explore: mess hall, laundry, barbershop, cobbler, tailor, sick bay, operating room, communications room, engine room, garbage disposal room, and ''spud locker," where food was prepared.
Because the rooms are well-preserved and maintained, visitors get a true feel for what life was like on the ship in wartime. All spaces are labeled and most have interpretive signs or audio-visual presentations that provide plenty of detail. The history comes alive even more through recorded recollections of crew members played on television monitors placed around the ship.
The bunk areas are not for the claustrophobic. Canvas-and-steel cots are packed tight and stacked in rows of three. The largest sleeping area held 183 men.
Since the Massachusetts arrived in Fall River 40 years ago, the nonprofit organization that runs the attraction has been collecting surplus military vessels. The most prominent are the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., which served in the Korean War and was part of the 1962 blockade of Cuba, and the USS Lionfish, a submarine that fought in the Pacific in World War II.
Also floating next to the Massachusetts is Hiddensee, a ''corvette" or attack ship, which was part of the East German Navy. After the Cold War ended and Germany was reunified, the ship was turned over to the US Navy, which used it for testing and training.
Battleship Cove's two World War II-era PT boats, PT 796 and PT 617, did not see combat, but the swift patrol torpedo boats are important historic properties. Most US PT boats, which were given numbers and not names, were destroyed after the war because the cost of bringing them home was prohibitive.
From an American perspective, the story of the USS Massachusetts is a happy success. In 35 engagements, the ship never lost a crew member. Still, visitors to Battleship Cove get a sense of the tragedy of war. The battleship is the state's official World War II memorial, and those from the Bay State who died in the war are honored in a somber exhibit. There are also memorials on the ship to those who died in the Persian Gulf War and the Sept. 11 attacks.
On the destroyer named after US Senator Edward M. Kennedy's oldest brother, who was killed in the war, are memorials to Massachusetts servicemen and women killed in the Korea and Vietnam.
Robert Preer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.