Where Ships Go to Die

Posted September 28th, 2012 at 1:09 pm (UTC-4)

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.

The U.S.S. Iowa in action. Talk about heavy-duty earplugs or noise-cancelling headsets on the sailors serving there!  (U.S. Navy)

The U.S.S. Iowa in action. Talk about heavy-duty earplugs or noise-cancelling headsets on the sailors serving there! (U.S. Navy)


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.

The U.S.S. Constitution at sea just this year, on its way to Maryland for the big War of 1812 Bicentennial celebration.  (Hunter Squires, Wikipedia Commons)

The U.S.S. Constitution at sea just this year, on its way to Maryland for the big War of 1812 Bicentennial celebration. (Hunter Squires, Wikipedia Commons)

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.

The guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Boone's decommissioning ceremony earlier this year.  (U.S. Navy)

The guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Boone’s decommissioning ceremony earlier this year. (U.S. Navy)

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, [1]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.

Carol's photo of the mothballed fleet at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol’s photo of the mothballed fleet at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. (Carol M. Highsmith)

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 at sea.  (U.S. Navy)

The U.S.S. Long Beach at sea. (U.S. Navy)


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.

The Long Beach's memorable insignia.  Check out the ship's slogan thereon.  (U.S. Navy)

The Long Beach’s memorable insignia. Check out the ship’s slogan thereon. (U.S. Navy)

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.

The Long Beach in its death throes.  (U.S. Navy)

The Long Beach in its death throes. (U.S. Navy)

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.

A more fitting final photo of the U.S.S. Long Beach.  (Thoraf Doring, U.S. Navy)

A more fitting final photo of the U.S.S. Long Beach. (Thoraf Doring, U.S. Navy)

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.

7 responses to “Where Ships Go to Die”

  1. Phil says:

    Search for “10 Largest Ship Graveyards in the World” and you’ll find it on Marine Insight

  2. I have an interactive map of historic US Navy ships of World War II on my website. Check out http://www.fyddeye.com/fyddeye-directory/ships/warships-world-war-ii The page also has a new poll asking about the most endangered historic ships in the USA.

  3. ed mays says:

    While on a bus trip several years ago up to West Point I was amazed to look out the window and see a huge number of ships lined up side by side fore and aft resting on the Hudson River…there`s something about ships alright…..what a beautiful sight.

  4. chuckterzella says:

    Such a sad story, even if a well told one. But I’ll make a minor disagreement- I’ll bet for those sailors who served on them those ships were definately not ‘are inanimate objects and don’t have feelings”. Especially in times of war the ‘old girls’ that brought them through battle were to them as ‘alive’ and as much a part of the crew as they were, much like flyer’s planes, tanker’s tanks and even a civilian’s first car.

    It’s a common phenomina (sp?) to assign ‘life’to the things we come to love (or hate, as I’m sure some of those sailors did about vessals they served on).But again, a great piece.

  5. tland says:

    Dear Chuckterzella,

    Since I suffer from acute seasickness, I never developed a love of the sea, but I know people who did, and it’s understandable. I do have pleasant memories of standing on the ocean shore, looking out to the horizon and imagining the vastness of it all and the incredible feats of sailors upon the sea — one loose board from the briny depths. Thanks for writing.


  6. jyoung says:

    To the comment “While on a bus trip several years ago up to West Point I was amazed to look out the window and see a huge number of ships lined up side by side fore and aft resting on the Hudson River.” Actually, it had to be more than several years ago. The last ships in the “Hudson River Reserve” were removed for scrap in 1971. The last places for these “ghost fleets” are the James River, upstream from Newport News, VA, and Suisun Bay, CA – by Vallejo and Benicia. The latter is where the Iowa, BB61, sat after her decommissioning some 20 years ago. Also, as Ted pointed out, there are also idle retired ships, including the Forrestal-class carriers, at Philadelphia, PA, Newport, RI, and Bremerton, WA. See for yourself on Google Earth.

  7. ed mays says:

    Yes, it was several several years ago…more like 1952-53 on a class trip. I have often thought there could be no greater job than that of captain of a ship or a fighter pilot. Thanks, jyoung, for pointing out my timeline and the location now of these ghost ships.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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