Though the NMUSN is free and open to the public, it’s on the Washington Navy Yard — a military base that intentionally deters casual visitors. Over the years, tightened security has made it more difficult for nonmilitary folks to go inside. It’s not impossible, just intimidating — the “Warning, This Property Patrolled by Police Dog Teams” signs and stern men with giant guns certainly gave me pause. But all you need is a driver’s license and a felony-free record, and you can enter the base at the visitors gate at 11th and O streets SE, and then just walk yourself to the museum. (See below for details.)
I recommend visiting the NMUSN if only for the opportunity to see what’s inside the Navy Yard’s foreboding brick walls. On a recent visit, I caught a glimpse of the chief of naval operations’ beautiful Georgian house, heard a Navy band practicing and wandered around a field strewn with interesting artifacts, including the top of a World War II submarine. It was a weekday, so I saw only a handful of people walking around — mostly office workers out for an early lunch — and the museum was practically deserted. I thought I was totally alone until, about an hour into my visit, two children appeared out of nowhere and trampled over my feet.
“Sorry!” their mom called out to me. The three of them were there for a ceremony of some kind, and the kids were having a great time climbing enormous WWII anti-aircraft artillery, an activity that is allowed — encouraged, even — according to signs on the guns.
The NMUSN has a wonderfully old-fashioned approach to interactivity. In addition to the climbable artillery, there’s a replica battleship bridge with turning wheels and cranking cranks, and two working submarine periscopes, one of which was trained on an overturned boat in the Anacostia.
“We think it was abandoned by a drug dealer during a police chase,” a museum staff member said of the boat. “It’s been there since February.”
I had a lot of questions for her, because — while this Navy museum has tons of amazing stuff on display — the signage is a bit lacking. For instance, I couldn’t find any information on the strange orange glider hanging in the museum’s World War II gallery.
“That’s a kamikaze training airplane,” the staff member told me, adding, “Yes, there was a training program to become a kamikaze pilot.”
She also explained a U-shaped machine gun on display near some WWII anti-aircraft artillery. “It’s from a Japanese torpedo plane that was shot down” by an American ship, she said. “It crashed into the ship and got bent around one of the ship’s guns.”
The American artillery continued to work even after the Japanese airplane crashed into it and set it on fire, she added with pride.
Admiration for Navy engineering is evident throughout this museum, and that point is driven home by its largest artifact: the bathyscaphe Trieste, a 50-foot-long deep-water research vessel that consists of a huge gasoline tank with a claustrophobic compartment for riders stuck to the bottom. Nearby, I found a Navy submariner giving an ad hoc tour to his wife.
The Trieste, he said, touched down at the deepest part of the ocean — about 35,800 feet beneath the surface — in 1960.
“They literally just went down there, peeked out of the window, saw some fish no one had ever seen before, and went right back up,” the submariner said. “No one ever went again until James Cameron in 2012.”
I spent most of my time in the World War II gallery, but sections devoted to other conflicts were equally fascinating. The Cold War gallery, for instance, includes a Viet Cong water mine, a landing vehicle from the Korean War and an enormous nuclear missile (emptied of its payload, I assume) that was toted around by American submarines at the height of America’s stalemate with the former USSR.
Going backward in history, I found the museum’s most impressive artifact in its Revolutionary War section. There, alongside all sorts of old swords, guns and cannons, is the original fighting deck from the USS Constitution, a high perch for sailors to stand on while shooting their muskets at enemy ships.
This is illustrated by two dusty mannequins that appear to be historic artifacts themselves — I’d guess they date to about 1963, when the NMUSN opened. Base security was so relaxed in the museum’s early years, entire busloads of tourists regularly stopped by. These days, the museum mostly seems to host school groups and military ceremonies.
That’s too bad, because the NMUSN is full of fascinating artifacts and it’s quiet, which is a nice contrast to the crowded American history museums of the Mall. Still, I hope to see bigger crowds there in the future. If the Navy Yard’s high walls cause us to forget that this excellent museum exists, it might just disappear forever.
How to visit D.C.’s secret Navy museum
The National Museum of the United States Navy is easy to get into — just walk right in Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., or Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. But there’s a catch: First, you have to get through the gates at the Washington Navy Yard. This is no problem if you’re a military member, employee or contractor with a CAC (Common Access Card) — just swipe yourself in at any of the four gates around the base. Everyone else must go through the Visitor Control Center (VCC) at 11th and O streets SE and pass a quick background check.
At the VCC, they’ll check your driver’s license and ask you to fill out a two-page form. The process took me about 20 minutes. Once you pass, you’ll be fingerprinted and photographed, handed a temporary pass and sent on your way. (Almost everyone passes except for convicted felons, staff say.) There’s one more catch: If you want to visit on a Saturday, you must submit your access request two weeks in advance, because the VCC is open only on weekdays. To arrange a weekend visit, call 202-685-0589.
A note about transportation: The VCC is located on the far eastern side of the Washington Navy Yard, more than a mile from the Eastern Market or Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro stations. There’s no parking, so your best bet is to take a dockless bike-share or scooter-share. That way, when you’re done with your visit, you can exit the base from a more convenient gate than the one you entered through, such as the gate at the edge of Yards Park.
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