Bring Historic Ships back into the Fleet

By Commander David F. Winkler, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired)

Fortunately for the Navy, the great equalizer is embodied in the dozens of Navy-related museums and history centers maintained by states, municipalities, and nonprofit and veteran organizations around the country. Some of these are ashore. Examples include the Constitution Museum in Boston; the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus, Georgia; The Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia; the Navy UDT-SEAL Museum at Fort Pierce, Florida; and the recently opened Building 92 Museum at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard. In addition, in the nation’s capital is the Navy Memorial, maintained by the National Park Service, which has an adjacent Naval Heritage Center operated by a nonprofit organization.

A Heritage Afloat

The majority of these museums, though, are centered on gray hulls. Located in 29 states are 58 formerly commissioned ships of the U.S. Navy. Ranging in size from aircraft carriers to minesweepers, these vessels embody unique aspects of our naval heritage, and collectively attest to the importance of sea power. Major coastal metropolitan areas hosting one or more of these vessels include Boston; Providence, Rhode Island; New York City; Philadelphia; Baltimore–Washington, DC; Norfolk, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; Houston; San Diego; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; and Honolulu. Inland population centers such as Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, Omaha, Little Rock, and Baton Rouge also host one or more of these historic warships within their communities. The population tallies in these areas alone come to nearly 100 million Americans. When factoring in all of the smaller cities that host naval vessels, the outreach capability to the public is even greater.

Most of these vessels came to their communities through the Navy’s Ship Donation Program, managed by the Naval Sea Systems Command. With recipient organizations required to retrieve and tow the vessel to their new homeport, the Navy saves on paying disposition costs for the decommissioned ships. For the Navy, this has been a good deal and a remarkable success story.

These ships provide the Navy substantial benefits. For example, the aircraft carrier Midway , located on the downtown San Diego waterfront, has hosted more than 300 active-duty military events, including re-enlistments, retirements, changes of command, and memorials, and hosts the annual Battle of Midway commemoration. And while these events could have been held at existing facilities on Navy bases, when performed on a decommissioned ship a greater sense of Navy and national maritime historical importance is imparted. Such activities and events are life-changing, enduring, and priceless.

Historic ships expose the American public to the U.S. Navy on a continuing basis. Take the Midway , for example: More than 1 million visitors toured the ship over a recent 12-month period. Of significance, a visitor-survey sample indicated a majority of the visitors did not have direct Navy ties, despite the ship being located at the Navy’s largest West Coast homeport. Because the Midway is a recently decommissioned front-line carrier, visitors get an outstanding snapshot of the challenges and opportunities that today’s sailors handle on a daily basis.

History’s Support System

While the $38 million the Navy budgets for the NHHC sounds impressive, as with the Navy’s academic institutions, the command depends on its partnerships with nonprofits to provide for a margin of excellence. In Washington, the Naval Historical Foundation supports myriad command activities ranging from artifact acquisition to exhibit installation at the Navy’s national museum, and each of the other museums in the Navy’s museum system has supporting nonprofit organizations that collectively have raised tens of millions of dollars over decades.

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the donated ship assets rests completely with recipient organizations. For these super large Navy “artifacts,” there are substantial costs involved in maintenance. The Navy transferred the majority of the ships in the historic fleet to their new stewards during the late 1960s and ’70s following its drawdown as the United States slowly extracted itself from war in Southeast Asia. Thus, many of the hulls on display mark their origins to the World War II/early Cold War timeframe.

Additionally, time and maritime environments are not friends of steel hulls. Stories of the deteriorating conditions of several of the ships, such as the Olympia , Texas , and Yorktown , have made the news wires. In the case of the Olympia , part of the problem is that the ship has not been drydocked for major hull repair and restoration in more than 67 years. While most organizations can afford to maintain and operate the ships on a daily basis, the challenge of building substantial endowments to either underwrite necessary drydockings or eventual disposal have been beyond the institutional capability of these groups. Costs associated with the mitigation of lead paint, PCBs, and other hazardous substances have saddled organizations with expenses unforeseen decades ago.

Although they are no longer owned by the Navy, for the millions of Americans who tour them annually, these historic ships might be the closest contact they ever have with the nation’s Sea Services. Rust, chipped paint, and grime do not leave positive impressions. The public does not necessarily differentiate the U.S. Navy from the organizations that manage and own these vessels. Two decades ago, when the Intrepid was facing some preservation challenges on the Hudson River waterfront, a New York cabbie asked his fare, Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare, “When ya gonna fix that carrier over on the West Side?” Bad news about a historic naval vessel can reflect as poorly on the Navy as a current combatant running aground.

Scrapping Hopes

Recognizing the importance of these ships and the significance of our maritime heritage in general, Congress acted in 1994 to pass Public Law 103-451, the National Maritime Heritage Act. To support ship preservation and related initiatives, Congress set up a fund to be administered through the Department of the Interior and financed through the sale of scrap metal derived from disposed ships of the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) National Defense Reserve Fleet. When the funds became available in 1998, several historic naval vessels, including the Hornet , Constellation , Massachusetts , and Olympia , applied for and received financing for preservation and education programs. But when the value of steel dropped so low that the government had to pay scrappers to dispose of ships, MARAD preferred an ongoing initiative to donate ships to various states for “reefing.” During this era the Navy disposed of many of its obsolete vessels, including the majority of the Spruance -class destroyers and the aircraft carrier America , through SinkExs for the purposes of Fleet training and weapon evaluation.

The good news is that a rise in the price of steel and other metals has made scrapping ships an economically attractive option for MARAD, as scrappers are now paying top dollar for discarded ships. Unfortunately for those who had envisioned the 1994 act as being the silver bullet to inject support to the maritime-heritage community, the intent of the legislation has been effectively undermined by bureaucrats.

For starters, MARAD is authorized by the legislation to retain 50 percent of the scrap-steel sales for administration purposes and another 25 percent to augment funding for the nation’s maritime academies. Finally, in 2009 a rider was slipped into legislation that allowed MARAD to retain the rest of the funds for its own heritage programs. After pushback from the maritime-heritage community, MARAD relented and now keeps half of those remaining funds. Thus, only 12.5 percent of the revenues being generated through the sale of scrap metal will be making their way to support the nation’s maritime-heritage needs.

Currently, MARAD’s disposal of former Navy ships has been limited to former auxiliary and Military Sealift Command vessels that were transferred into the National Defense Reserve Fleet. As just noted, in recent years the Navy sent most of its former Cold War combatants to the bottom or transferred them to foreign navies. Now that scrapping is an economically viable option, additional revenues can be realized as the Navy is working with the Defense Logistics Agency to sell hulls for scrap. Unfortunately, as one former Naval Sea Systems Command employee observed, potential profits from these sales “go to what I call the great Treasury in the Sky”—the General U.S. Treasury.

To divert these proceeds to a naval education and heritage fund would require language to be inserted into the Defense Authorization Act or the passage of a “National Naval Heritage Act” mimicking the language used in the 1994 National Maritime Heritage Act.

Re-Embrace the Fleet, Own the Legacy

Does the Navy have an interest in seeing a fund created that could be used to augment its internal heritage efforts and help provide funds to maintain historic ships? Absolutely! It’s time for the Navy to revisit its relationship with its historic fleet and explore the possibilities of better integrating these ships as another historical component of its public outreach “order of battle.”

That these ships and associated museums can be amplifiers is magnified by the fact that they are located mostly in locations where the Navy never had, or no longer has, a presence. An integration will require a sea change, starting from the Secretary and Chief of Naval Operations on down to include CHINFO, Navy Recruiting, and especially the Navy’s legal community, on how the Navy views and supports its historical assets.

How can such a sea change be effected? Supporting historic naval ships represents low-hanging fruit, with the greatest potential for return on investment—as illustrated by the Midway and her huge visitation numbers. By being more proactive with regard to the well-being and the underlying heritage message these assets represent, the Navy will benefit in the long term.

First, the Navy should work legislatively with organizations such as the Historic Naval Ships Association, Association of the United States Navy, Navy League of the United States, and other groups to develop reliable funding mechanisms, including combatant scrap sales, to augment the congressional commitment made in 1994 to support our maritime heritage.

Second, because of the public outreach and other services they provide, historic naval ships are viable potential contractors to a number of Navy commands. With little imagination, shore establishment commands such as Naval Education and Training Command, Navy Recruiting Command, Navy Reserve Forces Command, the various regional operational and supporting commands, and CHINFO can arrange for ceremonial services, office spaces, training platforms, and orientation centers. It should be recalled that the Great White Fleet battleship Illinois , rechristened the Prairie State and berthed at New York during World War II, served as a training vessel for hundreds of prospective officers. As for messaging, Navy Public Affairs could contract with the various historic-ship organizations for space on websites and promotions in social media.

The third initiative the Navy could consider to keep the historic fleet fresh is to offer to swap out ships. The Spruance -class destroyer introduced gas-turbine engineering, modern living conditions, and a whole array of advances that were incorporated into the designs of Ticonderoga -class cruisers and Arleigh Burke –class destroyers, yet none of these ships remains for donation. While no one considers today’s Arleigh Burke s as historic ships, someday they will be. Would it not be appropriate to preserve the USS Cole (DDG-67) to honor those who died on her and those who fought in the global war against terrorism? The challenge is, with so many ports already hosting aging historic ships, finding new homes for these worthy candidates could be difficult. A proactive arrangement where the Navy offers to swap out and dispose of an older vessel to allow one of these newer ships to go on display benefits the Navy in the long run.

In some cases the principle of addition through subtraction needs to be applied. For example, with 17 World War II–vintage submarines in various locations across the country, “a thinning of the herd” might contribute to the longer-term survival of the remaining submarines continuing on as viable tellers of the Silent Service story in the Pacific. Unfortunately, capital campaigns to fund ship disposal rarely attract donors. The Navy is helping to facilitate this discussion, and a dialogue on the “end of life” issue needs to continue.

A fourth initiative would be the removal of legal restrictions on naval leaders to advocate for the raising of funds on behalf of history and heritage initiatives. For example, Secretary of the Navy Charles Wilbur launched a fundraising effort in 1925 for the restoration of the USS Constitution , and he assigned the commandant of the Boston Navy Yard as the chairman of the fundraising committee. The committee, which included civic leaders and heads of patriotic societies, set a goal of raising $500,000 through soliciting:

• Officer and enlisted personnel of the U.S. Navy

• Small contributions from school children of the country ranging in amounts according to the grade from one penny to a maximum of ten cents

• Larger contributions from interested societies, organizations, business houses, and wealthy individuals.

Likewise, in 1938 Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson encouraged naval personnel to contribute to the “Battleship Oregon Marine Park.”

Shouldn’t the CNO or Secretary of the Navy today be allowed to advocate for financial support for the Midway if addressing the San Diego Chamber of Commerce or the USS Cod if addressing the Cleveland Council of the Navy League?

In addition, the Navy could consider allowing limited use of retiree mailing addresses for engagement by the various history- and heritage-supporting nonprofits. If Navy veterans living in Texas received an appeal to help support the preservation of the battleship Texas , would they turn their backs? Many would probably respond, “Why were we not asked sooner?”

Active-Duty Interaction

Finally, with regard to partnerships with the Fleet, why not establish a sister-ship/shore-establishment program between the historic ships and active-duty Fleet? For example, America’s historic naval fleet has 13 major capital ships (five aircraft carriers and eight battleships). If you partner the local San Diego and Norfolk shore establishments with their homeported capital ships Midway and Wisconsin , that leaves 11 active-force aircraft carriers to serve as sister ships to the remaining four aircraft carriers and seven battleships. Active-duty surface ships and submarines could be paired with their preserved counterparts. What could be the benefits of such arrangements? Perhaps the historic ship could serve as a local-community portal for the active-duty ship, assuming exhibits are installed in the historic vessel or accompanying visitor center that supply visitors with mission and deployment updates. Likewise, the historic ship could provide heritage content to the crews of the active-duty ships, reinforcing the Navy’s global role and responsibilities. In addition, the active-duty crews could work to support the historic ship through fundraising or other volunteer support activities.

As for the ailing Olympia , there have been some calls for the Navy to incorporate that ship into its small historic fleet, and certainly the case has been made that she is as historically significant as the Constitution and Nautilus . Whether the ship returns to the Navy or a nonprofit organization retains responsibility for stewardship, there is a unique connection with this ship in that she came into service at the time of the creation of the Navy’s chief petty officer community. Indeed, her muster rolls list the names of some of the Navy’s first E-7s. Would it not make sense to focus the CPO indoctrination process with its currently unfocused fundraising activities to preserve this historic ship, and then use her as a heritage-training platform for a select group of CPO candidates similar to training offered in the Constitution in Boston and the Wisconsin in Norfolk?

As seen with the Midway , some arrangements do exist at local levels, with enlistments, retirements, and other services being performed that do impact favorably on public perceptions of the Navy. What’s called for here is a comprehensive approach, initiated by senior Navy leadership, to build on relationships with those partners who are on the front lines in preserving and enhancing the Navy’s history and heritage. To break down the stovepipes and effect the necessary change required to remedy this unacceptable situation, a senior-level Navy flag officer should be appointed to take this on—perhaps the Chief of Navy Installations, given his responsibility for the shore-based establishment.

By bringing together the various Navy-command stakeholders to consider opportunities and review both Navy and partner-organization spending priorities, it may be possible to better incorporate America’s historic ships into our current national consciousness. Such an initiative would enhance the visibility of the Navy’s crucial role to our national economy as well as our national security. And it would remind citizens across the country that we must “Keep the Fleet to Keep the Peace.”

Dr. Winkler, director of programs at the Naval Historical Foundation, is the author of Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation Between the United States and the Soviet Union (Naval Institute Press, 2000) and Amirs, Admirals, and Desert Sailors: Bahrain, the U.S. Navy, and the Arabian Gulf (Naval Institute Press, 2007). A surface-warfare officer and Naval War College graduate, he served on active duty for ten years.


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