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USS Salem

Written by Kevin Jennings

The HMS Dreadnought. The USS Nautilus. The German battleship Bismark. These are nautical vessels of war that are known for their prowess and contributions on the battlefield, and to the landscape of war as a whole. It is rare that a machine built for war could reach similar if not greater levels of fame without ever taking part in a single military skirmish, but such is the case for the USS Salem, also known as the Sea Witch.


The USS Salem (CA-139) is one of only three Des Moines class heavy cruisers ever constructed. It was the third naval vessel to be named after the city of Salem, Massachusetts. The first ship was USS Salem (CL-3), a Chester class scout cruiser that served America during World War I before being decommissioned and sold for scrap metal. The second was the USS Salem (CM-11), a commercial cargo ship that also laid mines and nets during World War II. When the CA-139 was being laid down, the cargo ship was renamed to the USS Shawmut so that the heavy cruiser could make use of the bewitching name.

The CA-139 was ordered in 1943 and laid down on July 4, 1945 by the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. It launched on March 25, 1947 and was commissioned on May 14, 1949 with Captain John. C. Daniel in command. A formidable weapon of war, she was home to the world’s first 8 inch automatic guns. At over 700 ft (210 m) she was also the world’s last heavy cruiser to enter service and the last one to remain. With a complement of 1,799 naval personnel, the USS Salem was ready for battle.

But battle would never come. Her career begin with the typical shakedown, the nautical term for a performance test before active deployment, which took place at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The USS Salem returned to Boston for post-shakedown repairs, then made two more trips to Guantanamo Bay. It was after these trips, during a three month stint back in Boston, that the crew would nickname her The Sea Witch, on account of her namesake being the home of the famous witch trials and the official seal of the vessel featuring a witch riding a broomstick.

Though she would participate in drills and war games, the Sea Witch was never to see genuine combat. Arguably, that was never even the point of its construction. The USS Salem would be deployed to the Mediterranean seven times, making stops in Malta, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and Algeria. Though constructed as a powerful weapon of war, the Sea Witch was less a weapon of mass destruction and more a weapon of mass intimidation.

The United States had already established its unparalleled supremacy of the seas during World War II, a gap in naval military might not witnessed since the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom in the 19th century. Theodore Roosevelt had famously said, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” and the USS Salem was deployed to remind the world just how big America’s stick was. She was a PR stunt to make sure the rest of the world knew following the conclusion of World War II that yes, we are still making these, and they’re bigger and more powerful than ever.

Speaking of PR stunts, the USS Salem was used for literal PR stunts and was even a movie star. In 1958, she traveled to Monaco to celebrate the birth of Prince Rainer III and Princess Grace Kelly’s son, Albert II. If you are wondering, yes, Princess Grace Kelly is in fact American Academy Award winning actress Grace Kelly, who met Prince Rainer at the Cannes Film Festival. The USS Salem was also featured in the 1956 movie The Battle of the River Plate where it took the role of a German pocket battleship.
Ultimately, it was a pretty sweet deal for the essentially 1,800 men on board the USS Salem. Her tenure was largely just one long, paid tropical vacation without any actual combat, and there was the chance of meeting famous celebrities like Grace Kelly. All in all, it was really great gig…except for that one time…

The Ionian Earthquake


In August of 1953, over 100 earthquakes were recorded in the region between Kefalonia and Zakynthos, respectively the first and third largest of the the Ionian islands in Greece. The worst of those took place on August 12. Also known as the Great Kefalonia Earthquake, it measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, and the devastation was unimaginable. The eponymous capital city of Zakynthos was leveled by the massive seismic event, leaving only two buildings standing. The larger island fared even worse. The entire island of Kefalonia was razed, except for the tiny village of Fiskardo in the far north.

Homes were destroyed, fires ravaged the island, and no one was prepared for such a horrific natural disaster. Two ships from the Royal Navy and four Israeli warships were on their way, packed with doctors and supplies, but they were a few days out. The only ship that was nearby at the time of the disaster was the USS Salem, so the crew had to spring into action.

They landed at the Ionian islands and got to work trying to rescue as many victims as they could and to put out the fires that were ravaging the islands. The USS Salem was turned into a makeshift hospital as they tried to buy time for the other ships to arrive. For four long days, the crew of the Sea Witch were the only aid the Ionian islands had, and did their best to provide aid to the survivors of the earthquake. During this time the USS Salem became more than just a makeshift hospital, she was now a morgue.

There were no records kept of how many deceased were being housed on the ship, so the total is unknown. Perhaps there had originally been a plan to keep track, but as the pile of dead bodies continued to grow, counting them may have been too grim a task for the crew. As many as 800 people are estimated to have died as a result of the earthquake, and it is believed approximately 400 of them were piled aboard the Sea Witch. It was their final resting place, but a place that none would rest. And so the haunting of the USS Salem began.

Rogues Gallery
A superhero is only as entertaining as their villains, and a haunted ship is only as enthralling as the spirits who reside aboard her. With so many ghosts haunting the Sea Witch, there were bound to be a few standouts; those special few who take things to the next spooky level. Each of these famous ghosts aboard the ship has their own unique personality, ranging from the neurotic to the playful to the malevolent.


The highest concentration of paranormal activity occurs in the mess hall, as it is located directly above the freezer that was used as the morgue. This also means that, while the entire crew of the USS Salem were heroes for their efforts to aid to Ionian islands, the truest hero in today’s story is whoever had the unenviable task of cleaning and sanitizing the freezer, ensuring it would be safe for food storage again. Don’t forget, the ship remained in active use for another five and a half years after this event.

The most famous of the spirits about the Sea Witch is Burning Man, who resides within the freezer that was once a morgue. He is described as a specter that smells like death, and is believed to have died of fourth degree burns inside the freezer.

A pair of particularly useful ghosts are the cook and the busboy. The cook keeps the kitchen area spotless and organized, while the other drags out chairs and turns them over, as one does when closing out a table at a restaurant. While this seems like it would take a load off off some of the ship’s staff, the latter ghost also sometimes hurls chairs across the room, which is less than helpful.
There’s also the ghost girl of the mess hall, a pale ghost that only speaks Greek and is missing part of her face.

Next is the “salty sea captain”, a name he was given despite not actually being a captain. He is believed to be an Ionian citizen that volunteered to help during the aftermath of the earthquake, but took his own life after finding his wife’s mutilated remains among the dead.

It’s not just humans that lost their lives during the tragedy in 1953, and as such there is also a hellhound or hellhounds roaming the halls at night; there are conflicting reports about just how many ghost hounds there are, but all reports agree that they will let out a blood-curdling growl at anyone they lay eyes on.
Some other ghosts include the angry sentinel, a violent ghost that purportedly becomes aggressive towards anyone who disrespects the Sea Witch, and a group of mischievous teen girls that love banging on the freezer door; it is unclear whether they are banging on the door from the inside or outside.

Finally, there’s John. Just John. He was a maintenance man who became the USS Salem’s first tour guide, appearing to guests in human form instead of as an apparition. His existence as a ghost became known when extraordinarily happy customers began to praise the tours being given by a nonexistent tour guide.
The hauntings of the Sea Witch are so legendary that it was featured both on the SyFy show Ghost Hunters in 2009 and the Travel Channel show Most Terrifying Places in 2019. Given the reactions to the ship’s paranormal activities most enthusiasts have after a single night, one can only image what those last few years of active duty must have been like for the Sea Witch’s crew.

Museum Ship
The USS Salem was finally decommissioned on Januay 30, 1959. She was stored as part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet in Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for decades. In 1981, the ship was reexamined for the possibility of being brought back into active duty. While inspections showed that the vessel had remained in excellent working condition, Congress did not provide funding to reactivate the massive ship, or its sister ship Des Moines. It was not stricken from the Naval Vessel Registry until December 7, 1991.


In October of 1994, the USS Salem returned home to Quincy where she was originally constructed. Once there, it was converted to a museum ship as part of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum. A typical museum ship is just a ship that has been docked and offers tours for education or memorial purposes, but the Sea Witch was no typical ship. Given the immense side of the vessel, it was able to be four museums in one.

In addition to the standard offerings of a museum ship, she also houses the USS Newport News Museum (The Newport News was one of the other three Des Moines class cruisers), the US Navy Cruiser Sailors Association Museum, and the US Navy SEALs Exhibit room.

Given the reputation of the Sea Witch, it should come as no surprise that the museum also offers paranormal tours. The five hour paranormal experience is led by experienced guides and provides all of the necessary ghost hunting equipment, including, but not limited to, electro-magnetic field detectors, laser thermometers, infrared cameras, grid emitting lasers, and digital voice recorders. These tours seem to be in very limited supply, with only 3 dates listed for the entire year, though having been closed for years because of Covid it is possible that the ship’s offerings are in the process of ramping back up.

The official website also boasts that you can spend a night on board the ship with the paranormal investigators from the Travel Channel, though there is no information about the availability of those events.

In 2016 from September 30 through Halloween, the USS Salem partnered with startup company Ghost Ship Harbor to create a haunted attraction on the ship. Despite the ship’s notoriously haunted history, this event had absolutely nothing to do with that. Instead, it operated on the premise that there was a worldwide contagion, and escaping onto the ship was the only hope for survival. Naturally, an outbreak would occur on the ship and terror would ensue. Even without utilizing the Sea Witch’s haunted past for anything other than ambience, the event was a massive success both for the company and with the attendees. It received almost universally positive reviews as well as being ranked the #1 scariest place in Massachusetts.

Wrap Up
While the USS Salem never saw combat, being used as a deterrent rather than a weapon, she saw more than her fair share of death. While it’s easy to focus on the alleged haunting and paranormal activity, let’s not forget the most important part of this story.


A massive warship full of Navy soldiers and mechanics ran to the aid of those in need following a devastating natural disaster. They were neither prepared nor trained to undertake this sort of rescue effort, but they did not hesitate. While waiting four days for the boats full of doctors to arrive, they offered any and all assistance they could, including turning their own home into a morgue. Many lives were cut short following that earthquake, but it’s hard to believe they would choose to haunt the ship of the men who tried their best to save them, and without whom many more lives would have been lost.

Bonus Fact
The paranormal tour of the USS Salem is five hours long, but visitors are free to leave at any time. If the ghost hunting expedition becomes too scary, you can always go visit Kilroy’s Mini Golf, located directly next to the heavy cruiser.
The 18 hole mini golf course is named after James J. Kilroy, who worked as a shipyard inspector at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, the yard where the USS Salem was built and is currently docked. While having served on both the Boston City Council and Massachusetts State Legislature, it was his work at the shipyard that made Kilroy not just famous, but mythical.

James Kilroy is believed to be the creator of the “Kilroy was here” drawing, a World War II meme that spread across the landscape of the entire war. If you’d like to know more, be sure to check out “Kilroy Was Here: The Story Behind One of the First Viral Memes in Modern History” over on the Today I Found Channel.

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