Walking the 200-yard pier that leads to the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum (PPNMM) gives you plenty of time to take in the USS Yorktown. As you approach the 880-foot-long, 27,000-ton aircraft carrier, it’s hard not to think of anything but the brave young sailors who fought for our freedom aboard this ship in so many conflicts, beginning with World War II. You’ll likely feel equal parts solemn and admirative, especially if any of your loved ones served in the Navy, as did my grandfather in World War II.
The PPNMM, which opened in January 1976, sits just across the harbor from Charleston in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Besides the Yorktown, it offers four other military components: the Medal of Honor Museum, the USS Laffey destroyer, the USS Clamagore submarine and the Vietnam Experience.
The Yorktown ranks as the museum’s biggest draw, and it's where you’ll want to dedicate most of your time. Construction on the massive ship began in Newport News, Virginia, in December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Navy launched the newly built ship into the water in January 1943, commissioned it three months later, then immediately put it into service in World War II. The champagne bottle didn’t break when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened the carrier, which supposedly brings bad luck to a ship. But only 141 men perished on the Yorktown in its nearly three decades of service, including participation in 40 battles in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Nicknamed the “Fighting Lady,” it earned 11 battle stars for its service in World War II and five for its Vietnam duty. The Navy decommissioned it in 1970 and berthed it at Patriots Point in 1975.
With your PPNMM ticket, you can roam the Yorktown on your own, but given the ship’s many nooks and crannies, it’s best to take the 90-minute Captain’s Tour ($39, including admission). Not only do the volunteer guides make sure you see everything without getting turned around, they’re also mostly veterans who often share their own intriguing military stories. My group’s humble guide, Tom Simons, didn’t reveal it at the time, but I later discovered he was with the Blue Angels in the ’70s.
Be prepared to cover a lot of ground: The ship was a virtual city, with about 3,200 men aboard at any given time. “Everybody had everything they needed, and nothing that they didn’t,” Simons says. Translated: Streamlined living and working were happening here long before minimalism became a trend.
First tour stop: an exhibit on the Doolittle Raid — the surprise attack on April 18, 1942, that President Roosevelt ordered in response to Pearl Harbor — located on the Yorktown’s main (hangar) deck. You’ll immediately notice a restored B-25 Mitchell bomber, the type of aircraft fighter pilots used to take off from the USS Hornet (an aircraft carrier similar to the Yorktown) and successfully bomb their Japanese targets. All 16 of the planes used in the raid ran short on fuel by the end of the mission, with one pilot diverting his aircraft to Soviet Russia and the other 15 crash-landing or bailing out of their planes. Miraculously, 73 of the 80 involved in the dangerous mission survived.
Only those on the Captain’s Tour can climb up into the restored bomber, which I eagerly do. Looking around inside, I imagine what it must have been like to fly one of these planes for 10 hours during an attack — with no restroom on board, at that.
Moving on from the exhibit, you’ll start to explore the Yorktown’s seven decks open to tour. (Floors below the main deck are called “decks,” while those above it are “levels.”) A narrow staircase (navigating a naval ship isn’t a stroll in the park) leads down to Deck 2 and the chapel, with wooden pews, hymnals and framed photos of clergymen who had served on the ship, such as Father “Holy Joe” Moody. In March 1945, it fell on his shoulders to put five men injured in a bomb attack on the Yorktown at peace before they died.
Down a tight hallway with walls painted mint green, you’ll pass through a communal restroom, a workshop where sailors assembled torpedo bodies and a room with hanging cots that slept 36 men. Head down more stairs to Deck 3, where you’ll find a machine shop, a bomb elevator (which transported bombs assembled below deck to the flight deck to be loaded onto planes) and the scullery. A recipe affixed to the bakery room wall lists the ingredients for 10,000 cookies, including 500 eggs. Fresh-baked cookies was one way the Navy reminded sailors of home. Today the Yorktown smells like jet fuel rather than fresh-baked cookies. It's not overpowering, but the smell hits veterans hard on tours, Simons says, who has noticed more than one tear up after breathing it in, as it takes them back to their service days.
Warplanes and radar equipment
Exiting the fo’c’sle deck and ascending several levels of the ship through the crew’s berthing area, the tour takes you up to the flight deck and 10 of the most significant aircraft in U.S. carrier aviation history, including the AD-4N Skyraider, F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat and SBD Dauntless. Depending on how much of an aerophile you are, you can spend a few minutes or a couple hours wandering among them, and even climb inside the SH-3G Sea King, an anti-submarine helicopter.
Once you’ve had your aviation fix, take in the views of Charleston Harbor, Patriots Point and Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which spans the Cooper River and connects downtown Charleston to Mount Pleasant.
Our small group splits here to do more exploring on our own. On my way back down to the main deck, weaving up and down narrow staircases, I come upon the radar room on Level 4 and feel compelled to pause. Here, sailors manned scopes on three types of radar equipment: air traffic control, fire control and surveillance. After checking them out, I look out over the harbor, somehow feeling at peace.
Leaving the ship, I check a text from my dad. I’d messaged him before I boarded the Yorktown but didn’t have reception on the ship to see his reply. “What was Grandpa’s job on his Navy ship?” I’d asked. My heart skips when I read his response: “Radar man.”
More history to take in
Engage further with Charleston’s military history by exploring PPNMM’s four other components, without having to get in your car and drive to them.
Medal of Honor Museum: Here, interactive exhibits pay tribute to American heroes who’ve received the Medal of Honor, from the Civil War through the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s home to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, as well — the country’s highest award for military valor. Read stories surrounding the history of the Medal of Honor, and see lists of all the recipients in our nation’s history. You’ll find the museum just inside the entrance to Yorktown, to the left of the front desk.
USS Laffey: See the most decorated World War II-era U.S. destroyer still in existence, berthed in front of the Yorktown. The 376-foot-long ship supported the Allied invasion of Normandy (D-Day) in June 1944 and served throughout World War II and the Korean War before being retired in 1975.
USS Clamagore: Step down into the only preserved GUPPY III submarine in the country, which served for 30 years during the Cold War. Measuring 322 feet long, it came to rest just south of the Yorktown in 1981 after its decommissioning. It has been closed to the public since Spring 2020 but will reopen to visitors in June. Not for the claustrophobic or mobility impaired.
Vietnam Experience: Located adjacent the ticket office on the pier’s land side, this 2.5-acre attraction brings Marine officers from the Vietnam War to life via holograms. A 3-D exhibit simulates wartime life, including the recently expanded Quonset hut, with an M151 Jeep, Viet Cong Sampan and replica of a Saigon street corner. Note: Pre-COVID, PPNMM included a fifth component — the USS Clamagore submarine. It closed to the public in spring 2020, and museum officials say it may not reopen, though no definitive decision has been made yet.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Getting there: From downtown Charleston, it takes about 15 minutes to drive to the museum. Seasonally, you can also take the Charleston Water Taxi to Patriots Point. It departs from Waterfront Park landing in downtown hourly, spring through fall.
Visit: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (closed on Christmas Day; reduced hours on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve)
Admission: $24 for adults; $19 for adults 62 and older, as well as active duty or retired military (ID required). $39 for the Captain’s Tour, which includes museum admission. Even if you don’t take a guided tour, pause to chat with the volunteers, the museum’s hidden gems. Most are veterans, and you could be talking to a retired admiral or captain, or even a former Blue Angels pilot.
Best time to visit: Arrive at opening time on a weekday to give yourself ample time to explore the Yorktown and see PPNMM’s other components without fighting crowds.
Best season to visit: Fall, when the museum is less crowded and the temperature is milder, making the ship more comfortable to tour. It has no heat or air conditioning, so if visiting in winter, dress warmly. In summer, prepare for potential sweltering temperatures.
Accessibility: The parking lot is near the ticket booth at the beginning of the pier, but it’s a long walk to the museum entrance from there. If you don’t want to make the walk, just hop on one of the golf carts that museum staffers use to shuttle visitors to the entrance. Wheelchairs are available at no cost (first come, first served). Skip the Captain’s Tour on the Yorktown if you’re not able to go up and down staircases. Even if you have mobility issues, you can still see about 60 percent of the ship, with an elevator providing access to the main and flight decks, as well as Deck 3. Both the Medal of Honor Museum and Vietnam Experience are wheelchair accessible, but not the USS Laffey.
Executive director’s tip: The Yorktown’s gift shop carries dozens of U.S. Navy caps from many different ships that can be tough to find elsewhere, making it an ideal spot to shop for Navy veterans in your family.
Other must-sees in the area
Fort Sumter National Monument: If you want to make a day of it in Patriots Point, tour one ship at the PPNMM, then take the 30-minute ferry ride to Fort Sumter, where soldiers fired the Civil War’s first shots. The fort also saw service during both World War I and World War II before being decommissioned as a military post and turned over to the National Park Service in 1948. It’s now a national historic site. There’s no admission fee to the fort (located on an island), but to get there you must take the ferry, which costs $30 for adults and $28 for adults 62 and older. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at the fort, then head back on the ferry to tour PPNMM’s other ship or take in the Vietnam Experience. Note: The fort has limited accessibility; there’s no elevator and you must climb stairs to see many parts of it.
Cold War Submarine Memorial: This memorial, near PPNMM, honors all those who served in the country’s submarine force throughout the Cold War’s four decades. It features a 60-foot plaza centered by an American flag, granite ledgers listing the names of the U.S. Navy submarines that served in the war, and a full-size replica of a ballistic-missile submarine similar to those stationed in Charleston during the war.
Where to Stay
In Mount Pleasant: Just 2.5 miles east of the PPNMM, the boutique Post House — a “restaurant with rooms” in a restored 1896 home — has only seven rooms, each decorated with European-meets-Southern flair. Rooms from $185
The 125-room Harborside, on the waterfront at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, is just a 7-minute walk south of the museum. It has a spa and outdoor pool, plus its own designated stop on the Charleston Water Taxi, a fun way to get to downtown Charleston when it’s operating, from spring through fall. Rooms from $99
In Charleston: Stay in true style downtown at the 434-room Belmond Charleston Place, which prides itself on fusing luxury with Southern charm. Its striking Georgian-style lobby with a winding open-arm staircase, Italian marble floors and eye-catching chandelier sets the tone for a stay here. Rooms from $325
The newly opened boutique hotel Emeline is another chic downtown option. Don’t miss biting into one of the wood-fired pizzas or homemade pastas served up in its indoor-outdoor restaurant, Frannie & the Fox. Rooms from $229
Both hotels are within walking distance of King Street shopping, restaurants and Rainbow Row, the often-photographed row of 13 pastel-hued historic homes.
Where to dine
For seafood: The caught-that-day entrees, especially the rare seared tuna, shine at Hank’s, a local staple for more than 20 years. It’s pricey, but the food (the jumbo shrimp cocktail and she crab soup win kudos), charming ambience and white-tablecloth service make the restaurant splurge-worthy.
For comfort food: The casual, trendy Millers All Day serves affordable breakfast (you guessed it) all day, plus pie by the slice in the afternoon, in its large, light-filled dining room.
Kelsey Ogletree, an Alabama-based journalist, writes about travel and food for Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and the Wall Street Journal.