How a Michigan Beach Town Became Home to a Highly-Decorated WWII Submarine

by Braxton Taylor

MUSKEGON, MI – An 82-year-old piece of storied World War II history has called the Muskegon Lake channel home since 1987, thanks to strong community support and the formation of a new museum.

The USS Silversides fought in the war from April 1942 to July 1945. Painted on the side of the ship like a tattoo are 30 Japanese flags representing the enemy ships the submarine sank during its 14 patrols. The submarine ranks third highest among all WWII submarines in ships sunk, today it is the nation’s most famous surviving WWII submarine.

The submarine was originally designed to run alongside a Navy fleet but when the U.S. fleets were depleted after Pearl Harbor, the submarine’s mission changed to “hunter killers,” said museum preservationist Matt Kervin.

Unlike modern-day submarines, the Silverside does not have a round exterior. Instead, the ship has a flat surface and looks similar to a fleet ship.

The USS Silverside was in the war from April 1942 to July 1945. Painted on the side of the ship like a tattoo are 30 Japanese flags representing the enemy ships the submarine sank during its 14 patrols. The submarine ranks third highest among all WWII submarines in ships sunk. Today it is the nation’s most famous surviving WWII submarine.

After WWII, the Silversides was brought to Chicago for training. After years of sitting in decay a team of volunteers helped restore the vessel. The submarine was moved to Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1979, but with the city wanting to revamp the pier, the submarine needed a new home.

In 1985, residents of Muskegon started a campaign to get the decorated submarine to their home port. In August 1987 that became reality as several boats helped escort the submarine to its permanent location in the Muskegon Lake channel.

Walking the length of the 312-foot vessel, visitors can picture different scenes of life at war, from the stacked cots next to torpedoes, the galley kitchen outfitted with a massive coffee tank, to the lights and levers of the control room.

People get a sense of how nimble and agile the crew must have been — especially the crew manning the elevated conning tower 36 feet up who would jump down the hatch and into battle position in 30 seconds.

However, they won’t envy the lack of privacy these men endured with only three showers and four toilets among them.

Today the Silversides serves as the centerpiece of the USS Silversides Submarine Museum located at 1346 Bluff St. in Muskegon.

The two-story submarine museum next to the vessel details the many adventures of the USS Silversides throughout World War II, its significance in battle and personal accounts from its crew. Also docked next to the Silversides is the USCGC McLane, a prohibition-era Coast Guard cutter, that is also open for tours seven days a week.

“We don’t want to cater only to the history buffs,” Executive Director Bethann Egan said.

“We want to make you curious about it afterwards. This isn’t a place you have to know something about World War II, you’re going to learn when you come here. You don’t have to be intimidated.”

The museum allows overnight stays for groups who want to fully immerse themselves in history. Groups up to 72 people can stay onboard, hang out below the water line and sleep next to torpedoes.

For more information about the museum and hours and admission, visit their website here.

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