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Relic Hunting aboard Retired Warships

I make no apologies for my passion for United States Navy militaria just as I never pass on an opportunity to talk about the history of my favorite branch of the U.S armed forces. By the time I was serving aboard my second ship I took interest in the legacies that were berthed in semi-permanent moorages awaiting some final disposition.

During my first enlistment, I was part of the commissioning crew of the Navy’s newest (at that time) state of the art cruiser. I spent four years aboard culminating in a combat deployment carving, along with my shipmates, my own page of naval history. It was a difficult yet highly rewarding time in my life. From that ship, I opted to relocate in favor of a preferred geographic region, settling for an old workhorse auxiliary vessel.

One of the first things I learned about my new (old) ship was that the main propulsion plant was significantly older than the ship itself. It seems that the Navy sought to make use of the steam turbines from the mothballed, incomplete BB-66 hull. The unfinished ship, the USS Kentucky, had been under construction as World War II was winding down and was no longer needed in the post-war navy. This powerful propulsion plant meant that my ship was very powerful and could keep up with the Navy’s modern super carriers.

Hornet at Bremerton

USS Hornet as she sat in Bremerton, WA awaiting her final disposition.

Not only was there some history within my ship, but her home port was filled with it. The naval base was not only an active naval station and naval shipyard but it was also ship boneyard (see Kit and Carolyn Bonner’s fantastic work, Warship Boneyards) . There among the handful of active ships was an entire fleet of retired ships waiting for the Navy to decide their final fate. Greeting me as I drove up to the main gate were ships that had graced the pages of WWII naval history – among them were the USS Oklahoma City (CL-91), USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) and the USS Hornet (CV-12).

USS Oklahoma Citry

This image of the USS Oklahoma City shows her pier side after her decommissioning.

When we were in port, I was surrounded by naval history and I was like a kid in a candy store. What made things more interesting for this budding historian was when I was tasked with searching a few of the inactive ships for needed parts to make repairs to our antiquated equipment in combat information center (CIC) on my ship. Armed with a tool bag, my shipmate and I made our way through three vintage inactive carriers (the Hornet, Bon Homme Richard and USS Oriskany CV-34) in search of treasures. Traipsing through the various ready rooms, I was overwhelmed by the painted squadron insignia in each space along with tote boards where pilots would track their missions and statistics for launch and recovery performance.

Ready Room 1944

WWII Naval aviators congregate in their ready room as they prepare for a combat mission in 1944.

Walking the flag bridge – where the embarked admiral and staff coordinated battle group operations – caused my imagination to stir. Regardless of of the space, I looked for anything that I could remove and tuck away in my pocket to preserve for posterity (I admit it, I was really looking for something to add to my collection). Unfortunately, I was unable to locate anything small enough that I would be able to carry past the mothball ships’ caretaker. Though my collection didn’t benefit, my ship did as we located most of the needed components. I was left with one of my most cherished memories

While this story doesn’t have a happy ending from a collector’s perspective (not that what I might have personally acquired would have been under ethical circumstances), what I did keep was a fantastic experience walking the decks among the ghosts of decades long past. A few short years later, three of the four ships (mentioned above) would be disposed of. One was scrapped (CV-31) and two others were sunk as a targets (CL-91 and CV-34) for missile firing exercises.

Oriskany Sinks

USS Oriskany (CV-34) sinks after charges are detonated. She settled on the bottom almost precisely at her intended location as a man-made reef (source: Matta).

Navy enthusiasts and budding historians can follow in my footsteps whole touring the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, California though I’d recommend NOT emulating me by bringing your tool bag.


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