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Ghost Ships of the Mothball Fleet
June 8, 2011 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Inside the Ghost Ships of the Mothball Fleet : The Cleanup of Suisen Bay

For decades, dozens of forgotten Navy and merchant ships have been corroding in Suisun Bay, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. These historic vessels—the Mothball Fleet—served their country in four wars: WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Desert Storm. After a decade of impasse, the ghost fleet is slowly dwindling as the ships are towed out one-by-one for scrapping. About 15 retired ships are already gone; by 2017, the entire fleet will be just a memory.

A small sample of the ships there:

USS Iowa : Then and Now

USS Horne : 1967-2008

Navy tugboat Hoga : "At the height of the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the tugboat Hoga helped beach the USS Nevada, preventing the Japanese from sinking the battleship and blocking the channel. The Hoga then went on to gallantly fight the fires on the blazing hulk of the USS Arizona." Here she is now.

General John Pope : WWII Transport ship

Red Oak Victory : WWII Victory(cargo) Ship (now a museum ship!)
posted by HopperFan (53 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Suisun Bay on google maps.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:42 AM on June 8, 2011


I remembered seeing the mothball fleet as a boy. My dad called it "a graveyard for ships" as we drove by that day.

I remember wondering if the ships had mommy or daddy ships that would come and cry over their child ship's watery grave. Or if the dead baby ships went to ship heaven to be with Ship Jesus and the Little Mermaid forever?

Man, I was a weird 17 year-old.
posted by Avenger at 8:42 AM on June 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


This was always one of my favorite things to see on road trips, and now I hope I can get the kids back to California to see it again before it's gone. I'm going to love going through these links.
posted by padraigin at 8:43 AM on June 8, 2011


It only makes sense that shipspotting would be a hobby like trainspotting, but I never really though about it, until today. And I added a new word to my vocabulary: gongoozler, a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals (in the UK, apparently).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:45 AM on June 8, 2011


This is really an amazing thing that they did. Thanks for posting.
posted by josher71 at 8:47 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


For those in New York, you can visit the previously mentioned Staten Island Ship Graveyard. But beware, it's remarkably dangerous - one of the few places I thought could really kill me.
posted by exhilaration at 8:47 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Strip the paint and sink them as artificial reefs.
posted by stbalbach at 8:54 AM on June 8, 2011


OSHA has a very long guidance document on ship breaking. While it is obvious to me that to dismantle huge ships, in a safe manner, would require compliance with most of the OSHA rules, it is not surprising that the work gets farmed out to places like Bangladesh or Pakistan.
posted by Danf at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2011


I was surprised that they stumbled over Sea Shadow in there!
posted by Harald74 at 9:06 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


urban ruins, castle ruins, ghost towns, cemeteries--we love looking at ruins. Why?
posted by Postroad at 9:08 AM on June 8, 2011


Good thing there's no evidence they were trespassing.
posted by CarlRossi at 9:12 AM on June 8, 2011



urban ruins, castle ruins, ghost towns, cemeteries--we love looking at ruins. Why?


Yeah, and what's the deal with the pyramids? Booooooooooooorrrrrrrrinnnnnnnngggggg
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 9:14 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Korea was a multilateral police action, you insensitive clod.

Ducks
posted by clvrmnky at 9:15 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a mothball fleet on the James River in Virginia also. I remember being able to see it from the archaeological site of Wolstenholme Towne which makes an interesting contrast of 17th century and 20th century ruins.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 9:17 AM on June 8, 2011


Adventures in the Abandoned Ships of Suisun Bay
posted by AliaCamu at 9:34 AM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's worth noting that the Iowa will not, at least at present, be scrapped. The current plan is that it will be loaned to a museum organization, which must maintain it so that it could be reactivated in the event of "a national emergency."
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:35 AM on June 8, 2011


stbalbach: "Strip the paint and sink them as artificial reefs."

Taht's what they're doing, but there's a lot more harmful stuff in those boats than paint.

There's also a ghost fleet in the James River near Newport News, VA.

I used to sail by it every now and then -- there are big signs warning that you'll be shot on sight if you attempt to approach any of the ships. There is a small skeleton crew that works around the clock to make sure that the ships don't sink, and gradually strips them of their hazardous/sensitive components so that they can be disposed of safely.

I believe that the military has finally lifted the official "mothball" status, recognizing the fact that the rusting hulks will never be able to be used in combat again. The original intent of the fleet was to have a set of serviceable hulls ready that could be quickly restored to duty in the event of a major conflict (or at least, more quickly than building entirely new vessels).
posted by schmod at 9:37 AM on June 8, 2011


Since 2006 the U.S Navy has tried to give the Sea Shadow away but as of February 2009 nobody has taken the offer.[1][2]
[edit]


WHAT??? Are you fucking kidding me? They did not call me. I will take that thing in a hearbeat. Or maybe.....it would be perfect for Cortex Mission Control. Seriously how has no one, not even a museum, taken that thing?
posted by spicynuts at 9:38 AM on June 8, 2011


A couple years ago I spent the night on a yacht anchored between these boats. The pictures don't really do them justice, they're breathtaking.
posted by mullingitover at 9:47 AM on June 8, 2011


we love looking at ruins. Why?

The aesthetic love of ruins took off in the 18th and early 19th centuries as part of the Romantic movement, though it had some earlier antecedents in the Enlightenment. Ruins reflect the ideal that Nature is powerful and will eventually overcome the transient creations of man.
posted by stbalbach at 9:48 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that the Iowa will not, at least at present, be scrapped. The current plan is that it will be loaned to a museum organization, which must maintain it so that it could be reactivated in the event of "a national emergency."

I'm trying to come up with exactly what sort of national emergency would be the right time to bring a 70+ year old battleship back into commission, but I'm not coming up with much, short of an urgent re-re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Museum ships are awesome, though, so anything that makes for more of them is clearly a good thing.
posted by Copronymus at 9:49 AM on June 8, 2011


"Strip the paint and sink them as artificial reefs."

> Taht's what they're doing

The article said they were being cut up for scrap metal.
posted by stbalbach at 9:49 AM on June 8, 2011


Dude, google earth and google maps is amazing for this. there are quite a few in SF harbor too.

there are other ghost fleets too.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:51 AM on June 8, 2011


It's worth noting that the Iowa will not, at least at present, be scrapped. The current plan is that it will be loaned to a museum organization, which must maintain it so that it could be reactivated in the event of "a national emergency."

This begs the question: What kind of conceivable emergency could happen to the US where re-activating the Iowa is the best response?
posted by Harald74 at 9:51 AM on June 8, 2011


Or what Coprynymus said...
posted by Harald74 at 9:52 AM on June 8, 2011


I know some folks who work near Mare Island, where the scrapping is going on and have put up a webcam to film timelapse footage of the ships being scrapped.
posted by pombe at 9:53 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huh. So that's what those ships off the 680 bridge are. Thanks!
posted by GuyZero at 9:53 AM on June 8, 2011


The Iowa was actually mothballed from 1958 to 1982 (24 years). That's longer than it has currently been sitting around. So you never know.
posted by smackfu at 10:00 AM on June 8, 2011


Sam Peckinpah wasn't at his best when he did The Killer Elite, but that set-piece with the big Ninja battle on the Mothball Fleet was worth the price of admission.
posted by ovvl at 10:03 AM on June 8, 2011


I'm trying to come up with exactly what sort of national emergency would be the right time to bring a 70+ year old battleship back into commission, but I'm not coming up with much, short of an urgent re-re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Museum ships are awesome, though, so anything that makes for more of them is clearly a good thing.

Ahem.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:07 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was surprised that they stumbled over Sea Shadow in there!

I wondered what the hell that was.
posted by TedW at 10:09 AM on June 8, 2011


WHAT??? Are you fucking kidding me? They did not call me. I will take that thing in a hearbeat.

Not only that, but they are throwing in the Glomar Explorer's submersible dry dock!
posted by TedW at 10:11 AM on June 8, 2011


What kind of conceivable emergency could happen to the US where re-activating the Iowa is the best response?

The "theory" is this. The Iowa class battleships had a unique capability in the modern navy, namely, gunfire support of amphibious assaults. Congress decided that this was too important, and forbade the US Navy from disposing of the ships until they had replaced that capability. The USMC wants these ships kept active for this role, the US Navy wants them struck and gone. The USMC convinced Congress that a certain set of requirements was required for gunfire support, and, funny enough, the only thing that could do that was the Iowa and her sisters.

Supposedly, what made everyone happy was the DD(X) program, with the new Advanced Gun System, a 6.1" (155mm)/60 weapon with a 10 rounds per minute firing rate, guided projectiles, and the LRAP (Long Range Attack Profile) shell, able to fire over 70 nautical miles and land with 50 meters of the target. At full rate, the ship could fire over 100 shells before the first one lands, and then, of course, when 100 more come pounding in afterwards, well, it's a pretty dramatic event.

But what really ended the idea of reactivating them is just time. It would take to long. The ships are too old -- all of them are over 65 years old. The spare parts for them just don't exist, making maintenance a nightmare. The Iowa herself has one turret unusable after the 1989 explosion, cause by faulty gunpowder.

However, this hasn't stopped Congress. The four BBs are to be kept in a state such that they can be reactivated, but they were allowed to become museum ships. Missouri is at Pearl Harbor, on Battle Ship row just behind Arizona and her memorial. Wisconsin is berthed in Norfolk, VA, and New Jersey is in Camden, NJ. Iowa herself is supposed to berth somewhere on the West Coast, but this has been a very messy process, not helped by the Navy agreeing that San Francisco would be a dandy place for her, and San Francisco saying "Uh, No Thanks!".

But the only reason all four of them are still afloat is the insistence by Congress that we be able to shell some country in support of a USMC landing -- so we're spending millions keeping these four ships afloat, and keeping what spares we have in good condition. The US Navy estimates it would take 18-24 months and $500 million to actually get one of these ships back into the fleet, so really, it would probably be closer to three years and a couple of billion dollars.

But Congress Sez we keep them, so they float still. I expect them to still be floating -- and "ready" to go at a "moment's notice" well after I'm in the grave. Yay, us.

Oh, and, of course, the DD(X) program, now the DDG-1000 class, turned into a money sucking nightmare, and instead of the 32 that the Navy wanted, they're getting 3 -- but that's another story.
posted by eriko at 10:20 AM on June 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


Not only that, but they are throwing in the Glomar Explorer's submersible dry dock!

We should buy that for MeFi's own cstross.
posted by eriko at 10:21 AM on June 8, 2011


Didn't they shoot Escape from Planet of the Apes here?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 AM on June 8, 2011


I like the way the in the before and after shots of the USS Iowa the guns have gone from being erect and proud to limp and flaccid.
posted by hnnrs at 10:33 AM on June 8, 2011


Previously
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:39 AM on June 8, 2011


The google map of Mallows Bay is really cool. At first you see only one ship next to a marsh, then the horror begins to reveal.. the marsh.. it's..
posted by stbalbach at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is it just me, or does the Sea Shadow look like something out of the Venture Bros?
posted by Afroblanco at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2011


Didn't they shoot Escape from Planet of the Apes here?

Nope, that was just LA Harbor, as in the story.
posted by dhartung at 11:03 AM on June 8, 2011


The US Coast Guard Cutter Storis is in Suisun Bay. She was the longest commissioned ship in the fleet, patrolled the North Atlantic during WWII, circumnavigated the Arctic, hunted down illegal fishing in the waters around Alaska, and saved hundreds of lives in dramatic fashion during her years on the Bering Sea. There is an effort, and a bill before Congress, to return the Storis to Juneau, AK, as a maritime museum. A friend of mine has been working on a documentary about the Storis and recently visited her in Suisun Bay.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


What kind of conceivable emergency could happen to the US where re-activating the Iowa is the best response?

Hook them up to some atom bombs and launch them at an invading alien space craft?

I can't remember if that contraption they used at the end of Niven's Footfall involved any battleships. If not, I'm sure it wouldn't have hurt to slap a few battleships on there.
posted by marxchivist at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dangnabit -- I'd only just run across Haefner's work myself and thought "dude, MeFi". Nice huge set here and a similar shipboard UE here.

Got some balls not only posting photos online of themselves in the act of trespass but then did a show about it. Also, I dunno how comfy I'd feel overnighting in rotting ships built in the days when a number of compounds we now worry quite a bit about were not a big deal and used liberally.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:19 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't there some book where terrorists hijack and sail a battleship up the Potomac and try to fire a shell at the White House?
posted by smackfu at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2011


I recall reading about the re-activation of the Iowa-class battleships in the early 80s in a technical magazine. One of the more interesting challenges was the fuel delivery system since the Bunker C fuel oil they used needs to be heated to between 220 to 260 degrees F in order to flow. The pipes carrying the oil were essentially blocked and had to be replaced. The retrofit included a change to lighter viscosity fuel oils which don't require the preheating.
posted by tommasz at 12:13 PM on June 8, 2011


You scrapped my battleship!
posted by mmrtnt at 12:17 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't remember if that contraption they used at the end of Niven's Footfall involved any battleships. If not, I'm sure it wouldn't have hurt to slap a few battleships on there.

Just the turrets
posted by mikelieman at 12:32 PM on June 8, 2011


"WHAT??? Are you fucking kidding me? They did not call me. I will take that thing in a hearbeat. Or maybe.....it would be perfect for Cortex Mission Control. Seriously how has no one, not even a museum, taken that thing?"

Hell, its got everything I'd ever need;

"Sea Shadow has only 12 bunks aboard, one small microwave oven, a refrigerator and table."
posted by Blasdelb at 12:37 PM on June 8, 2011


Well, I did find an article on Free Republic arguing that the US needed the battleships to fight terrorists, but I left unconvinced...
posted by Harald74 at 12:50 PM on June 8, 2011


Great post. Advice if the adventurers return: take a video camera. The photographer is clearly gifted and has an eye for beautiful shots. But, given the topic, a more documentary approach would be great; let me follow you down dark hallways and understand the layout of the ship. Focus on interesting relics etc... Lots of potential. Sell it to a game company who can use it as context materials for a new video game.
posted by astrobiophysican at 2:23 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Leaving Suisun ?
posted by geckoinpdx at 2:47 PM on June 8, 2011


Creepy. One thing that terrifies me is the space between one ship and another, the hulls reaching down into the water into eventual darkness.
posted by tumid dahlia at 3:47 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's so beautiful--one of my favorite things to view on the train through there--though I also like the C&H Sugar Factory--red brick factory porn for your bit of sweet. One thing I like about sea and sky is after looking at it awhile it's hard to tell which end is up and what is floating on what, and everything appears to be hovering after awhile. It's extra nice with loads of big ships in a row. It almost seems like they're going somewhere, or at least planning on it.
posted by eegphalanges at 2:30 AM on June 9, 2011


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