It’s a good thing that U.S. warships are inanimate objects and don’t have feelings. When their seagoing days are done, the end for most of them is not pretty.
Now it’s true that a few are sold to friendly foreign governments and are still sailing the deep blue seas.
And 48 U.S. Navy ships that have historical or sentimental significance are enjoying cushy retirements as museum pieces, permanently anchored in various harbors, all spit-shined for the tourist trade.
For instance, the retired battleship U.S.S. Iowa, launched in 1942 and called “The World’s Greatest Naval Ship” because of its roaring guns, heavy armor, speed, modern technology, and longevity, just opened to tours in its new and permanent berth in San Pedro, California, in July.
In fact, a lot of people in the midwestern state of Iowa wanted to see the ship parked somewhere much closer to its namesake home, but getting a battleship to a landlocked place with more cornfields than bodies of water proved impractical.
Water levels in the neighboring Mississippi River have been so low at times that even shallow-draft barges and steamboats have had to wait for rain or snow runoffs to navigate the Big Muddy.
A lot of people make it a point to visit the U.S.S. Constitution, the world’s oldest warship still afloat, docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard at Boston Harbor. The hardwood hull of “Old Ironsides,” as that three-masted frigate is known, famously repelled many a cannon ball fired by the British frigate Guerriere during the War of 1812, and it even sailed down to Baltimore in Maryland to help commemorate the bicentennial of that war a couple of months ago.
So, amazingly, the Constitution is not retired at all. It’s still part of the U.S. Navy’s active fleet, though I doubt we’d send her out against enemy destroyers any time soon. (Are there potential enemies of the United States that have destroyers anymore?)
But back to those vessels that are in, or past, their sunset years.
From the moment some dignitary christens a new vessel by smashing a bottle of champagne over its bow, the Navy has a pretty good idea what its probable service life will be. It knows the likely wear and tear of the sea and of the men — and of late, women — cooped up aboard. It can guestimate when its weapons systems will be obsolete. And it can calculate, roughly, how many missions the engines and propellers and guidance gear will endure.
So to the great sadness of their crews — the men and women who have lived aboard, and in many cases grown to love, these expendable old tubs — most of them bow out rather ungracefully, after a properly somber “decommissioning” ceremony: the U.S. flag is lowered, there are salutes all around, a few fond words are spoken, and sometimes an inadvertent tear is shed by old hands who served aboard the vessel.
Some of these ships are then stripped down, drained of fuel, towed a distance out to sea, and used for target practice, like ducks at a carnival. Blasted to bits, they ultimately sink into the briny deep, into Davy Jones’s locker, into King Neptune’s garden, into the jaws of the hungry dog. Or some such metaphorical depth.
Other ships, sunk more rapidly with a single series of charges, slide to the ocean floor, where, as metallic reefs full of holes, they become happy habitats for fish and anemone and the like.
Some aging ships that haven’t quite outlived their usefulness join ghost fleets. They’re “mothballed,” as the saying goes, in the backwaters of three or four naval bases on the nation’s coasts. There they remain in ready reserve should an epic conflict break out, though “ready” is a relative term. It would take 30 days at a minimum to refit and rearm a ship that’s been whiling away the time in a back bay.
There are 100 or so U.S. Navy vessels currently in such a backup role, which reminds me of the time, a few years back, when Carol and I happened upon one of the most impressive arrays of out-of-service U.S. warships at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. She was photographing some general harbor scenes when we beheld what seemed like a never-ending line of faded-gray ships — the seagoing equivalent of “rust buckets” you might say — in a place where the Navy had been building ships since the Revolutionary War of the 1770s.
Left behind when the Philly yard closed as part of the military’s “base realignment” in 1995 were several mothballed ships in what the Navy calls a “reserve basin” — sealed, lightly air-conditioned, and electrically charged to deter rusting — in case they’re needed to fight a new, large-scale war. Two mothballed ships in Philadelphia, including the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, are giant aircraft carriers. Several cities have expressed interest in the Kennedy as a museum, and what an enormous and unprecedented one it would be! Imagine being the curator of a floating attraction that’s 321 meters long.
The Navy relinquishes ownership and day-to-day control of vessels approved for a curatorial afterlife, but not the right of periodic, unannounced inspections. It doesn’t want a ship whose crew had served the nation proudly to be turned into an overcommercialized theme park or tacky amusement venue.
And there’s one more fate for discontinued naval ships, one that’s even more gruesome — again assigning human characteristics to dumb steel boats — than subjecting them to target practice.
Some mothballed ships end up in nautical junkyards, to be ripped apart for components and scrap metal. As I mentioned in a posting last year, a fellow at Philadelphia’s naval yard told me that if I shave with a Gillette razor, I might well be scraping my stubble with a sliver of metal salvaged from a Navy vessel that the company purchased. Recycling on a grand scale!
Reduction to rubble is to be the fate of the historic cruiser Long Beach, which in July was sold at auction to Tacoma Metals, a surplus and scrap outfit, for something in excess of $885,000. That’s the going price for 3.3 million kilograms of steel, aluminum, and copper that might be salvaged.
The U.S.S. Long Beach was America’s first nuclear-powered surface warship, launched in 1961. Note again: nuclear warship, which imposes its own constraints when the time comes to scuttle it.
Three years into its service, this sleek vessel, fitted with gleaming teak decks in the manner of classic tall sailing ships, circumnavigated the globe without refueling, in just over five months.
(I’ve always wanted to use “circumnavigated” in a sentence. Is anything but the earth ever circumnavigated? There, I used it again.)
Afterward, upon its arrival at Norfolk Naval Base, the Long Beach was greeted by, among others, the Secretary of the Navy, various members of Congress, and even two beauty pageant winners, Miss Virginia and Miss Norfolk.
Although the U.S.S. Long Beach was built in Quincy, Massachusetts, at Bethlehem Steel drydocks many years after the last world war, it saw combat in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Vietnam War, where its missiles shot down North Vietnamese fighters that were flying more than 110 kilometers away — the first time in history that surface-to-air missiles had downed enemy aircraft.
In 1968, the Long Beach shot down still more North Vietnamese jets as part of an operation that resulted in the rescue of 17 U.S. air-crew members. In its dotage, the Long Beach maneuvered with the 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific, at one time, in 1980, picking up 114 stranded “boat people” seeking to flee North Vietnam.
The ship was decommissioned in 1995 and has been living out its years at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state.
When it was clear that the cruiser’s useful service had ended, the Navy began a process that it reserves for its liquidated nuclear vessels. It’s not enough to remove all its radioactive components. The Navy itself reduces what’s left to unrecognizable mounds of scrap — a job ordinarily left to the salvage company that is the successful bidder.
That’s because even the layout — the very floor plan — of our nuclear surface ships and subs is top secret, so the Navy chews up and mashes together the components, rendering them them unrecognizable.
The Long Beach’s sailors had long ago said their goodbyes. It’s a good thing, for, as you can see in the photo to the right, the ship wasn’t much to look at once its steel hull was removed, even before it was broken into chunks.
So those are the places that U.S. warships go to die or — as the old soldier, General Douglas MacArthur, put it in his farewell address — go to just fade away.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Anemone. Sea anemone — pronounced uh-NEMM-ih-nee — are fairly stationary, often quite colorful, sea predators that dwell on the ocean floor. Some look like plants, whose waving “leaves” reach out and grab prey.
Davy Jones’s Locker. Another name, or euphemism, for the sea bottom, the graveyard of dead sailors and sunken ships. In early sea lore, Davy Jones was the devil, or the evil spirit of the sea.