The USS Salem: The Haunted Ghost Ship

Posted on June 27, 2020

The USS Salem is a frigate manufactured in the 1940s that has been docked in various ports since it was decommissioned in 1959. Since that day, the ship has transformed into an interactive museum and also, due to its haunting reputation, into an occasional chilling Halloween haunted mansion spectacle sponsored by some of Vegas’ most renowned production companies. 

USS Salem ship's seal featuring a witch
Ships Seal for the USS Salem: Wikicommons

But why? Why does an old vessel have such a reputation? What in blazes happened to the ship in those few years of service that granted it the Stephen King mark of approval. 

Let’s find out!

Construction

The Salem was put together on July 4, 1945 by the Bethlehem Steel Co.’s Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Mass. It was post-war and America was still wary of its vanquished enemies. It needed a fleet and one that hadn’t seen the dogs of war and been chewed to pieces in the process. The US was solidifying its position in the Pacific and trying to outpace the Russians in Naval supremacy. The Nazis might have gotten their clock punched, the Japanese were licking their Two Atom bomb wounds, but that didn’t mean that the US could go home, crack a cold one and play its guitar at sunset. Nope! The US was waking up to the following fact:

“Stalin is one scary SOB… This might come to bite us in the ass. We dealt fascism a death blow, now we have to deal with the Commies… And Russia is BIG.”

The Salem launched on 25 March 1947; crack went a bottle of bubbly on its haul and of it went into the Massachusetts soup; ready for action, sparkly clean and hungry to get its feet wet… well, wetter. It took almost two more years for the USS Salem to find its captain and finally see some action. 

On the 14th of May 1949, the big shots in the War Department handed the Salem’s helm to Captain J.C. Daniel. The ship was packed with the latest in military tech’ and cutting edge weapons, it was for all intents and purpose a fast little demon meant to strike fear in whatever hoodlum still wanted to poke Uncle Sam in the eye. Among her most innovative specs’ was the fact that she held the world’s first automatic 8″ guns and were the first 8″ naval guns to use cased ammunition instead of shell and bag loading.

After a stay at Salem, Mass., on 4 July 1949, Salem experienced three months of shakedown and practice drills at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Following the sun-drenched rum-soaked examination and with most of the bugs pinpointed, Captain Daniels return to Massachusetts and managed to shave off all the kinks. 

Service

USS Salem today
USS Salem: wikicommons

Before we get into the neat and gritty – the blood and guts that spawned the spooks – it’s important to Tom Clancy the hell out of the USS Salem’s Naval career.

  • During the first of seven deployments to the Mediterranean as fleet flagship, Salem toured ports in Malta, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and Algeria, and competed in drill exercises.
  • On 3 January 1951, the Salem sailed for six weeks of intensive gunnery training at Guantanamo; The US was flexing their “GUNS.”
  • The war boat left on 1 February 1952 for refresher practice run at Guantanamo and returned to Boston on 29 March for short repairs.
  • 9 April of 1952, she sailed for her third Mediterranean deployment, relieving Newport News at Algiers. 
  • The warship departed Boston on 16 February 1956 for training at Guantanamo in preparation for a 20-month cruise as “permanent” flagship of the Commander, 6th Fleet with homeport at Villefranche-sur-Mer. She retreated to Boston on 5 April and traveled for the Mediterranean on 1 May. While she was at sea, the Suez Crisis broke out; and she was redirected to Rhodes where she met up with the fleet on 14 May.

Aside from the whole Suez Crisis, the USS Salem’s was nothing more than a War Department’s press-release to the world that said:

“Yup we have a few of those… So don’t cross us.”

The USS Salem never saw naval conflict; its primary function was to strut around, look imposing on photos and newsreels, dock in exotic lands – scare the natives – and go back to Boston… Rinse and Repeat. 

By 1959, the USS Salem had devolved into the United State’s go-to ship for propaganda. Hollywood needed a posh stand-in for a German pocket battleship – 1956’s film The Battle of the River Plate? The USS was loaned out to the production company. Monaco needed an elegant vessel to celebrate the birth of Albert II to Rainer III and Princess Grace Kely? Into the fray went the USS Salem. 

By the late 50s the ship was nothing more than a WD mascot… GREAT FOR PR.

The Salem was decommissioned on 30 January 1959. She was stored as part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. 

In October 1994, Salem was delivered to her birthplace in Quincy, Massachusetts where she was transformed into a museum ship as part of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum. 

Ionian Earthquake

Ionian earthquake
Ionian Earthquake; Wikicommons

But what exactly made a ship like the Salem one of the most haunted vessels in US history? It never experienced actual action in the high seas? It wasn’t torpedoed by the enemy. The crew was relatively happy – most enjoying paid vacations in Cuba and the Caribbean while getting autographs from Grace Kelly. What turned the USS Salem into ghost central, to the point that it was featured on the TV show Ghost Hunters?

The Ionian Earthquake of 1953 was the magic ingredient. 

The 1953 Ionian earthquake – the Great Kefalonia earthquake – hit the southern Ionian Islands in Greece on August 12 and basically devastated the area. 

And the only international ship cruising the area when Mother Nature decided to have her fit? The USS Salem. The American’s – through the USS Salem – started providing relief and assistance. The Israelis and other countries were coming in hot, their ship’s – brimming with doctors and aid – a few days off. The USS Salem and her crew needed to buy the other ships time and had no other choice but to go into the madness that was the Ionian Island’s

The USS Salem landed fast on Greecian shores and went into triage mode. Boats and sailors were deployed to rescue victims, put out fires, and bring out the dead. For weeks the ship served as an improvised hospital and, more importantly, as a morgue. 

For those harrowing weeks, the ship’s stock ran low while it collected dead bodies and ghosts. 

Ghosts

The USS Salem is nicknamed the “Sea Witch” and since the days of its valiant efforts during the Ionian Earthquake, its halls have been haunted by the lingering dead. The phantoms and specters of those treated on the ship linger in the steel hallways of the grand dame. 

There’s a reason why that Las Vegas hotshot decided to make a haunted house out of this old vessel. It’s knee-deep in ghosts and ghouls, and just nasty nasty nasty stuff.

Like:

  • Burning Man: who smells of death and hides in the berthing area beneath the third mess hall, where the bodies of the Earthquake’s victims were kept.
  • The ghost girl of the halls: a pale spirit that only speaks Greek and is missing part of her face.
  • The salty sea captain: some say a volunteer during the quake that committed suicide when he came upon his wife’s mutilated corpse.
  • The cook: a kitchen aid that loves to keep everything in order despite the fact that he’s been dead for more than 60 years.
  • The hellhounds: a ragged pack of huge dogs that roam the halls at night growling at everything that crosses their path.
  • John: a ghost tour operator that is still giving tours from the afterlife
  • The angry sentinel: a violent spook that is said to get aggressive if you disrespect the Sea Witch.
  • The living Doll Girls: a pack of mischievous teens that love banging the freezer near the wardroom pantry.
  • The Scratchers: creatures that love to attack and claw the legs of visitors.

Ghastly apparitions of ragged and torn limp haunt the place, so much so that the crew of Ghost Hunters has filmed in the place and caught footsteps and low-grade EVP.

Ghost expert, Don DeCritofaro – who spent many sleepless nights on the USS Salem – has defined the vessel as a paranormal goldmine.

At night most visitors swear they can hear dreadful wailing as an unfortunate soul once more experiences the horrors of that cruel act of nature. 

Source: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Ionian_earthquake

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Salem_(CA-139)

https://web.archive.org/web/20091227211509/http://www.hauntedship.com/trailer.html