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The Nation

Condemned 'Ghost Ship' Isn't Sunk Yet

Veterans and history buffs join forces to salvage a mothballed WWII vessel that is 'our only remaining link to the battle for Okinawa.'

August 25, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The "ghost fleet" huddles in the James River, half a mile from shore: 78 obsolete and rusting Navy and merchant marine ships, cargo holds empty, decks as silent as a graveyard. Soon to be scrapped or sunk, they live on only in the memories of old sailors who rode them into war and to a hundred distant ports.

One of them, the Gage, has been moored here, idle and mostly forgotten, for 56 years, ever since completing its World War II mission of putting Marines ashore for the invasion of Okinawa, transporting U.S. occupation troops to Nagasaki after Japan's surrender and providing the "magic carpet" that brought U.S. servicemen home from the Pacific.

"I'm surprised the Gage wasn't scrapped a long time ago," said one of its wartime crewmen, Joe Pugliese of Deerfield, Ill. "I got a look at her during one of our reunions and she was in really sad shape. I don't know if I'd even want to go aboard. I mean, I'm 79 years old, but I want to live a few more years."

Pugliese was not surprised when the U.S. Maritime Administration, known as MARAD, recently signed a death warrant for the Gage, saying that sometime next year the Navy would tow the vessel into the Atlantic and sink it in a live-fire exercise. Other ghost ships over the next three years will be sold for scrap or sunk to create reefs that attract marine life.

"The Gage wasn't a glamorous ship like a carrier or a destroyer," said Leroy Alexanderson, 93, who spent 46 years at sea and lives a few miles from the ship he once commanded, in a red-brick home with a lawn sign that reads: "One old sailor and the mate of his life live here." But like other attack transports, he said, it was an unsung workhorse, putting on the beach the troops who won the war.

Chances are the Gage would have slipped quietly into history, a mile deep in the Atlantic, had a group of veterans and naval history buffs not discovered its pending fate and sent a petition to Congress, asking that the live-fire exercise be canceled and that the Gage be saved and restored. They noted that societies in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tampa, Fla., had rescued mothballed naval ships and turned them into museums and cruise liners.

"Americans can walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, but this is our only remaining link to the battle for Okinawa, the last Pacific island to fall before Japan's defeat," said Peter Stoudt, 50, a Virginia writer active in what is called the APA Historical Preservation Project. "It's the only surviving WWII ship, originally configured, that men went down rope ladders into landing craft to hit the Pacific beaches."

Despite the Gage's flaking paint and surface rust, Stoudt and preservationists who boarded the ship found it in remarkably sound condition. There was no sign of leakage, and below deck, the engine room, the machine shop, the boilers and the berths seemed almost pristine. Estimated costs of saving the Gage and giving it a home in the Norfolk, Va., area, site of the largest U.S. Navy base, range from $5 million to $10 million.

"Gosh, yes, I'd like to save the Gage," said former crewman Ernie Rhodes, 88, who lives in nearby Norfolk. "My service on the Gage was the greatest moment of my life because for the first time, and maybe the last time, I valued something more than myself. It was the value I had to my country."

But winning a stay of execution for the Gage is no small challenge. MARAD is the federal government's disposal agent, not its historical arm, and it is operating under a congressional mandate to dispose of 130 obsolete "nonretention" vessels at three National Defense Fleet anchorages by September 2006. In addition to the James River, other ghost fleets are in Beaumont, Texas, and on Suisun Bay near Benicia, Calif.

MARAD is also under pressure from the state of Virginia, which has threatened to sue the federal government to get the ghost fleet off the James River because of environmental concerns. Gov. Mark R. Warner fears the ships that are tied together in nests of seven or eight could break loose in a hurricane, resulting in an oil spill that would wreck the river from Jamestown to Hampton Roads.

Robyn Boerstling, a spokeswoman for MARAD, said the sudden interest in the Gage after half a century is a bit late. Nonetheless, she said, if the preservation group came up with a developed plan, a site and funding, an eleventh-hour reprieve was not impossible.

"Why not save the Gage to show our young people what the past was and give them a sense of history?" asked Jack Hersh, 77, a former crewman who lives in San Carlos, Calif. "They don't understand that for people like me, from the age of 13, all I knew growing up was Depression and war.

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