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Under the Waves or Under the Torch: The Fate of Brooklyn Navy Yard Ships

From its founding in 1801 until its decommissioning in 1966, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was one of the pre-eminent naval shipbuilding and ship repair yards in the country. More than 100 vessels were launched from the Yard, and literally tens of thousands were serviced by its dry docks and repair shops (including over 5,000 during World War II alone).

Since the last Navy ship was launched in 1965, the number of Brooklyn Navy Yard products plying the waves has dwindled, and 2014 has been one of the roughest years for these storied ships, as four more have gone under the waves or under the torch at the scrapyard. Here is the fate of our recently departed, as well those remaining few still afloat.

USS Duluth. Source:
USS Duluth. Source:

USS Duluth (LPD-6)

Commissioned on December 12, 1965, the Duluth was the last of six amphibious transport docks built at the Yard, the last shipbuilding contract the Yard would receive before its closure. Duluth saw service in Vietnam starting in 1967, and in April 1975, she evacuated more than 2,300 refugees from Saigon as the city fell to North Vietnamese forces. The ship later took part in cleanup work after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, provided humanitarian support off Sri Lanka in 2004 following the Indian Ocean tsunami, and also supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ship was decommissioned in October 2005 at San Diego, and she has spent much of the time since in the mothball fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In September 2013, ESCO Marine of Brownsville, Texas (a better fate than most commercial ships) – where most Navy ships find their final resting place these days – won the contract to scrap the ship, and she was towed from Hawaii, through the Panama Canal (which you can watch here), and up to Texas, a journey of more than two months, arriving on December 27, 2013.

Though the Duluth is gone, its namesake city did manage to salvage one of its anchors – identical to the one salvaged from the USS Austin and displayed in the lobby of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92 – and it is now on display on the Duluth Lakewalk. You can see photos here of Duluth shortly before her scrapping.

USS Ogden (LPD-5)

Built alongside the USS Austin in the Yard’s dry dock no. 6 and launched in June 1964, the Ogden also spent time in Vietnam, transporting Marines (the principal task of the LPDs) to South Vietnam in 1966. She also deployed to Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 to help with the oil spill cleanup, and played a role in both the 1991 and 2003 Persian Gulf wars. In 2002, the ship collided with the submarine USS Greenville in waters of Oman, puncturing one of the Ogden’s fuel tanks. The incident took place less than a year after the Greenville collided off the coast of Hawaii with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing and training vessel, which sunk, killing nine crew members, including four Japanese high school students. The Odgen was decommissioned in 2007 and spent much of her retirement alongside Duluth in Pearl Harbor. Rather than head to the scrapyard, however, Ogden was sent to the bottom, sunk off Hawaii on July 10, 2014 in a live fire exercise during RIMPAC, an enormous biennial military exercise involving 22 nations.

USS Saratoga (CV-60)

The first of three “super carriers” built at the Yard, Saratoga was launched in 1955 and served in the Navy for 38 years. Saratoga spent much of her career in the Mediterranean, though she also participated in the blockade of Cuba in 1962, deployed to “Yankee Station,” the main concentration of American naval forces off the coast of Vietnam, in 1972-73, and took part in the first Gulf War. Decommissioned in 1994, the Saratoga had been berthed in Newport, Rhode Island since 1998. Rhode Islanders had been trying to save “Super Sara” and convert her into a museum, but since the Navy decided in 2010 to scrap the ship, efforts have instead been concentrated on moving the USS John F. Kennedy to Newport, which is currently in mothball at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Saratoga left Newport under tow on August 21, 2014 and arrived at ESCO Marine in Brownsville on September 12.

USS Constellation (CV-64)

“Connie” holds a very special place in the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Not only was she largest Navy ship ever built at the Yard, and one of the longest continuously serving, she was also the site of the deadliest accident in the Yard’s history. On December 19, 1960, a fire broke out inside the ship – the result of a fuel spill that was ignited by a welder’s torch – killing 50 shipyard workers and injuring more than 150. We have hosted on our tours of the Brooklyn Navy Yard many sailors and shipworkers who were at the Yard when the Constellation caught fire, including some who were on board, as well as many ordinary New Yorkers who remember seeing the smoke rising from the Brooklyn waterfront as the fire raged for more than 12 hours.

New York Times, December 20, 1960.
New York Times, December 20, 1960.

Despite her tragic beginnings, the Constellation went on to serve for nearly 42 years, fighting off the coast of Vietnam and taking part in both Persian Gulf Wars as well as enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq in the 1990’s. She was decommissioned in August 2003, and she has spent the past 11 years in Bremerton, Washington, home to the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility. On August 7, 2014, the Constellation left Bremerton to be towed to International Shipbreaking in Brownsville for scrapping. The ship is too large to pass through the Panama Canal, meaning she will have to travel around South America, a journey of 16,000 nautical miles that is expected to take four and a half months. The ship is being towed by the Corbin Foss, and you can follow their progress on Foss Marine’s Constellation blog, or on Marine Traffic (as of this writing, they are off the coast of Chile). It is a sad farewell to a ship that carries so many memories for the men and women who built and served on her.

Only four major ships built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are still afloat. The USS Independence, sister ship to the Saratoga, is still in Bremerton, though who knows for how much longer. For the past ten years, it has been listed in the Naval Register as “stricken, to be disposed of,” though no official announcement has been made about its scrapping.

The other three surviving ships are all World War II-era battleships, and all have been preserved as museum ships. The oldest of the three, and one of the most decorated ships of the war, is the USS North Carolina, which has resided in Wilmington, North Carolina since 1962. The USS Iowa, launched from the Yard in 1942, has been open to the public in San Pedro, California since 2012. The four Iowa-class battleships (Iowa, Missouri, and the Philadelphia-built New Jersey and Wisconsin), the largest ever built by the US Navy, have all been decommissioned and re-commissioned several times throughout their 70-plus-year careers, and they may still someday return to service, but today they are all museum ships. Iowa’s sister ship, USS Missouri, launched in 1944, has been a museum in Pearl Harbor since 1998, standing alongside another Brooklyn-built ship, the USS Arizona, which has sat at the bottom of the harbor since December 7, 1941.

Turnstile Tours offers several tours that highlight New York’s waterfront, past and present. We offer our Past, Present & Future Tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and other special themed tours of the Yard on select weekends. All tours are offered in partnership with and begin at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, which offers free admission to three floors of exhibitions on the Yard’s history, and a host of great special events and programs.