BREMERTON — The mothballed ships sit there, hulking, looming ghostlike in their gray and rusty coats, sometimes emerging from the water suddenly on a foggy day to surprise new eyes. Though the silent fleet is dwindling, it remains a powerful testament to the Navy’s deep roots in the region and hints of what’s to come.
Where once the ships were packed in along the edge of Sinclair Inlet at Naval Base Kitsap, the fleet consists now of a half-dozen surface ships, 11 nuclear-powered submarines and one cruiser, according to a Naval Sea Systems Command spokesperson.
Earlier this month, the USS Kitty Hawk, the last of four great aircraft carriers once moored at the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, was moved into dry dock, where it will be scraped of barnacles and sent south for scrap.
The USS Bremerton — commissioned 40 years ago today (March 28, 1981) — is in the long process of being deactivated and defueled at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the only location in the country where a nuclear sub can be put to rest.
If it’s lucky, the fast-attack, Los Angeles-class submarine will get to be a monument in its namesake city, arguably one of the most noble fates that can befall a decommissioned vessel.
Alan Beam, a retired Navy captain, former commanding officer of the USS Bremerton and a board member of the organization that is trying to preserve a portion of the sub, said he’s among those lobbying to see the sail and rudder placed near the Kitsap 9/11 Memorial at Bremerton’s Evergreen Rotary Park.
If placed as envisioned, it would appear to be sailing up Dyes Inlet, providing a physical reminder of the relationship between the military base, the city that grew up around it and the sailors who’ve served through the years.
“It’s like coming home,” said Beam.
Reserve fleet ebbs and flows
According to Megan Churchwell, curator of the Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton, the reserve fleet ebbs and flows, expanding as wars ended and ships were no longer needed and contracting when ships were scrapped or reactivated to fight, such as during the Korean War.
It was at its official peak in 1965 with 77 vessels, according Alan Baribeau of Naval Sea Systems Command.
The most famous example from the local reserve fleet was the battleship USS
Missouri (BB-63 — which means it was the 63rd battleship built by the U.S. Navy), where the Japanese signed the surrender that ended World War II.
It was reactivated for the Korean War, then was decommissioned in Bremerton in 1955, entering what was then known as the Bremerton Group, Pacific Reserve Fleet.
The ship was intentionally moored at the end of the reserve fleet because it was opened as a tourist attraction, Churchwell explained; it remained in Bremerton’s reserve fleet until it was reactivated in 1984 due to President Reagan’s 600-ship Navy plan, serving through the Gulf War.
The Missouri then came back to Bremerton in the 1990s, rejoining the reserve fleet until it was transferred to Pearl Harbor to be a museum ship near the ill-fated, sunken USS Arizona, where Japan’s war with the U.S. began.
In the present era, the most visible ships of Bremerton’s reserve fleet have been some of the last pre-nuclear-era aircraft carriers.
Churchwell said by email that when she arrived at the museum in 2014 there were four: USS Kitty Hawk, USS Constellation, USS Independence and USS Ranger.
“One by one they have been towed away for scrapping, leaving USS Kitty Hawk as the last remaining aircraft carrier in Bremerton’s reserve fleet,” she wrote.
There are five fates possible for decommissioned vessels, according to the U.S. Navy: They can be donated as a museum or memorial, sunk to create an artificial reef for fish, used in the middle of the ocean for target practice, sold to a foreign government or cut into scrap and recycled.
An emotional time for vets
Port Orchard native Ed Friedrich recalls climbing on the vessels as a child and also, like most locals, not thinking about them too much as an adult. That is, until he became the military reporter for the Kitsap Sun and wrote regularly about the mothball fleet.
What sticks out to him mostly now is how intensely many vets felt about the ships on which they served:
“People really get their hearts into the ship they served on and when one of them is being hauled off, it’s an emotional time. They get together in Bremerton and reminisce with their old mates.”
What usually happens, he said, is there is a rush of interest to raise money and persuade the Navy to donate it as a museum ship, but it’s rarely enough money. And ultimately, the efforts fizzle out.
Once the Navy decides that an old ship will be deactivated and removed from the Inactive Fleet in Bremerton, it’s moved into dry dock, where its Pacific Ocean barnacles will be scraped off before it’s towed to other waters.
Most aircraft carriers these days will be hauled down around the tip of South America (because they’re too big to fit through the Panama Canal) and up to Brownsville, Texas, where they’ll be cut into scrap, Friedrich said.
Scraped in dry dock
The Navy used to send divers down to scrape the hull in the inlet, but a lawsuit brought by the Suquamish Tribe and the state forced the change to dry dock. The lawsuit claimed the copper in the anti-barnacle paint used by the Navy is bad for the environment.
To deactivate an old sub, the nuclear-reactor core is cut out in Bremerton, the only location in the world authorized to do such work, and shipped by barge up the Columbia River to the Hanford nuclear reservation, where it is laid in an open pit for 1,000 years. The two ends of the sub are welded together and then placed into holding in the mothball fleet where, eventually — and this usually takes about five years — it will be cut up and recycled, according to Beam, the retired Navy captain who’s working to preserve a part of the USS Bremerton.
The USS Bremerton will be manned with a skeleton Navy crew until the fuel is gone, he said, and then the crew will turn it over to the Puget Sound Navy Shipyard, where it will be decommissioned and will no longer be a Navy ship.
The Navy appears to be moving fast toward the newer technology of unmanned systems. Think of it as “who wants an old TV with smart televisions all around?” U.S. Naval Institute News reports that the U.S. Pacific Fleet will host its most complex exercise to date involving unmanned systems, including a Zumwalt-class destroyer. Next month’s Fleet Battle Problem exercise will include unmanned aircraft on the water’s surface and in the air with the USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001) commanding and controlling the missions.
“The Unmanned Campaign Framework states it is imperative that we understand what our future force will need to operate both in day-to-day competition as well as high-end combat. The event being held in the 3rd Fleet operational area, under the guidance of U.S. Pacific Fleet, is exploring elements of that future force that will have the greatest impact on increasing the fleet’s lethality,” U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Tim Pietrack told USNI News.
Beam said those who look to the size of the mothball fleet for hints about the future will be watching to see what happens with the USS Enterprise (the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier). The Navy is currently studying to determine if the ship comes to Bremerton for dismantling, or if it should go to another, private shipyard.
If the Enterprise comes to Bremerton for dismantling, the rest of the nuclear carriers would likely follow, including the Navy’s nuclear-powered Nimitz class aircraft carriers.
The USS Nimitz just returned to Bremerton and is due for decommissioning in 2025.
That means Bremerton could be in line for a whole lot more work — 11 Nimitz-class carriers in all — and more gray ships with their rusty coats, peering through the fog on Sinclair Inlet, for years to come.