Most of the close to 100 cargo ships, tankers and other assorted
vessels lined up in Suisun Bay are well past their prime, floating
versions of so many rusted-out, 1971 Ford Pintos in some wrecking
Despite that, kindly don't refer to the ships by their commonly
used moniker, "the Mothball Fleet." At least, not in the presence
of Joe Pecoraro, who chafes every time he hears the term. He quickly
informed a visitor they should be called the "Suisun Bay Reserve
"It's my personal preference," said Pecoraro, the fleet's superintendent.
"That (mothballs) implies we've put them in mothballs, and they'll
never be used again. It's just a catchword. A lot of the ships can
be ready to go out and see service.
"Some can be activated in 10 days, others in 30 or 60 days. The
Navy can have a couple of ships in action in six months."
Still, for the bulk of the 94 ships that make up the fleet, the
only action they'll be seeing is being docked at the bay, awaiting
a possible date with the scrap heap, although any serviceable parts
will be removed for use on other ships.
About $19,000 per year is spent maintaining each ship, although
some are in such bad shape they have to be dry-docked for repairs.
There have been instances in which ships in the poorest shape can
cost up to $800,000 a year to maintain.
Four ships in the Suisun fleet are part of the Ready Reserve Force,
which means they can be ready for service in as little as five days.
More than a dozen are in what's called "retention status," meaning
they could ready for use in 60 days.
Ships in those two categories receive rigorous maintenance from
a team of 59 civilians, although regular painting of these ships'
exteriors above the waterline has been discontinued, as this was
deemed mainly cosmetic and a waste of labor and money.
That means a ship can appear over the hill on the outside, yet
perfectly serviceable on the inside, the latter of which is the
"It's like suspended animation," Pecoraro said. "We want to keep
the ship in the same shape it was in when it arrived."
The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet is part of the National Defense Reserve
Fleet. It's owned and operated by the Maritime Administration, a
branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The fleet was established
in 1946 and has three sites, Suisun Bay (Benicia), Beaumont, Texas,
and James River, Va.
Ready Reserve Force ships have been pressed into action on many
occasions, including the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.
During the latter, two Suisun ships transported tanks, ammunition
and helicopters to U.S. troops.
"There's a tremendous history of what those ships did during their
lifetimes," said Capt. Frank Johnston, Western regional director
of the Maritime Administration. "It's very nostalgic when I go out
there and see ships I sailed on or wanted to sail."
Few ships in the fleet have more historical value than the Hoga.
Not only was this tugboat, built in 1941, the oldest member of the
Suisun fleet, it also happens to be the last surviving vessel from
the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Hoga rescued numerous sailors during
Pecoraro said the Navy owns the ship and is figuring out what to
do with it.
Its historical value will save it from scrapville. It will probably
be turned into a museum, as was the Jeremiah O'Brien, which is docked
in San Francisco. The Red Oak Victory, in Richmond, is another former
member of the Suisun fleet turned into a museum.
Then there's the imposing Iowa, an 887-foot, 48,000 ton warship
that played key roles in the Pacific during World War II and in
the Korean War. The Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, a
nonprofit San Francisco organization, intends to make the Iowa a
museum and memorial.
"We can't just give a ship away like that," Pecoraro said. "Someone
has to take care of it and have the resources to take care of it."
That doesn't seem to be a problem for the Glacier Society. One
week a month, volunteers - former crew members and other interested
parties - descend on the Benicia facility to perform restoration
work on the Glacier, an icebreaker that was used in 39 Arctic and
Antarctic deployments, by the Navy and Coast Guard.
Glacier Society Chairman Bernard Koether, who navigated the Glacier
during his Navy days from 1959 to 1961, hopes to return the ship
to use for environmental and oceanographic explorations. His group
had hoped to berth the ship at Mare Island, but the effort failed,
so San Francisco and Alameda are the next possible sites.
"I took it around the world twice," Koether said. "I lived on that
ship a long time. I had a huge responsibility to move that thing
around the world, in and out of many ports. That ship means a lot
to me and (former) crew members."
The Glacier was ticketed to be put on ice - pun intended - until
Koether and his society became involved. Koether visited the ship
and realized it was in such disrepair that it would be mothball-bound
unless something was done. So in the fall of 1998, he formed the
Glacier Society, which has grown to 500 members.
"It was heart-wrenching to look at that ship, it was really depressing,"
Koether said. "I looked at it and thought, 'They're going scrap
this, cut it up in pieces, mat it down and make razor blades? No,
no, no . . . .' There's a tremendous sense of pride and effort in
what (the ship accomplished). It would have gone to scrap if not
Not that scrapping an entire ship is easy. It's not like tossing
a beer can into a recycling bin. Pecoraro said the practice of sending
ships to other countries to be scrapped ceased several years ago,
and environmental, labor, health and safety laws severely limits
scrapping on U.S. soil.
More likely, said Pecoraro, a ship will first be "cannibalized"
for spare parts, which the Navy purchases from the Maritime Administration.
The remains are then scrapped.
But many of those ships are of no use at all, simply floating there,
waiting. These vessels have no value other than their spot in history,
which can be priceless in some cases.
"You look at the history of a vessel when it comes in," Johnston
said, ''and people treat it reverently. It sends a shiver up your
# # #