BENICIA, Calif. – The aging rustbuckets, proud veterans of America’s past wars, come into view as the early morning fog begins to fade.
Lashed together and sitting in rows, the U.S. Navy and Maritime Administration’s floating cadavers moored here in the middle of Suisun Bay are drenched in history.
At least three alumni of this “ghost” or “mothball” fleet east of San Francisco had Nevada-related names: The ocean-going tugboat USS Winnemucca, the Las Vegas Victory and the oiler USS Truckee.
Other ships have included the battleship USS Iowa, the Glomar Explorer spy ship built by Howard Hughes and hundreds of World War Two, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War and Gulf War Victory and Liberty ships, tankers, cargo and supply vessels, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and LSTs.
The Iowa now serves as a floating museum at the Port of Los Angeles, the rest have long since been scrapped, and the National Defense Reserve Fleet here, which had about 80 ships in its inventory just a few years ago, is now whittled down to 16.
And most of these remaining 16, like those at the nation’s other reserve fleets at Beaumont Tex., and James River, Va., will soon be heading to the scrap heap as well, says Michael M. Novak, director of Congressional and Public Affairs at the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) which operates the three fleets.
The decrepit ships are on their way to the scrap heap because they are obsolete, unseaworthy and thus no longer viable as backups to the Navy’s active fleet. And they also are causing environmental damage by shedding paint and other toxins into the water such as asbestos, lead, zinc, copper and cadmium, said Novak, who added that the reserve fleets still will be maintained to accept further ships for eventual use or scrapping.
Some of Suisun Bay’s floating fossils have been towed to Texas and Asia for scrapping.
More recently, however, several of the remaining ships are undergoing much shorter voyages en route to the guillotine: They’re been dismantled just a few miles westward across the bay at the re-opened Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo which was built in 1854 and closed in 1996 following downsizing and closure of U.S. military installations.
A private firm appropriately named Mare Island Ship Yard LLC is taking apart and scrapping the obsolete ships but not before removing their historical artifacts such as deckhouse wheels that turn their rudders, compasses, port lights, cleats and interior signage that are sold to museums and antique shops.
Rust and pollution are then scrubbed off before shipyard workers, who have placed the ships in drydocks for easy accessibility, dismantle them and the scrap metal is sold to the highest bidders.
One of the warships at Mare Island awaiting the shipbreakers’ acetylene torches has borne four names.
Launched in 1939, the 492-foot ship initially was a merchant vessel named the Del Orleans. In 1941, it was acquired by the Navy which renamed it the USS Crescent City and converted it into an attack transport, and later into a troop transport. During its military career, the Crescent City won 10 battle stars following combat during the invasion of Guadalcanal and other World War Two Pacific landings.
In 1971, it was renamed the Golden Bear and operated as the training ship at the California Maritime Academy. In 1999, its name was changed to Artship when acquired by an Oakland non-profit organization that tried, unsuccessfully, to turn it into a floating cultural and performing arts center.
Other ships scrapped at Mare Island have included the fleet oil tanker USS Roanoke, the MARAD bulk cargo vessels Solon Turman and President, and the cargo ship USS Ambassador that served during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
These ocean-going dinosaurs will sail no more. Their fates are sealed. They soon will become salvage.
But someday they will return ... as paper clips, razor blades, pots and pans, and Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas.