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Remembering the Bay's Naval history before it floats away

After World War Two, Suisun Bay was a west coast port for the navy’s largest ships. The first grey goliaths arrived in the bay in 1946, and continued coming in over the following decades. They were meant to be a reserve fleet – so in theory, if the Navy ever needed extra ships, this is where they would get them. But for the most part, they never have needed them. And over time, the fleet has become a graveyard – a graveyard that needs a lot of upkeep.

In 2007, an environmental group sued the government over the condition of the fleet. In 2010, they won, and now almost all of the Mothballed boats are on their way out. And as they go, so will a hefty part of the Bay Area’s naval history.

“The biggest job at Normandy wasn't just putting the soldiers there, it was re-supplying them,” says Captain Patrick Maloney. “So, we talk about the teeth and the tail, the soldiers at the front are the teeth, but the tail is hugely important. The teeth don't keep going without the tail. Well, this ship carried the tail."

Moloney’s ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, is a United States Liberty Ship that served merchant marines during World War II, delivering supplies to Normandy during the D-Day invasion. These days though, it sticks a lot closer to home, as a floating museum docked at San Francisco’s Pier 45. The O'Brien was the first merchant ship to be saved as a memorial – and the only ship that steamed out of the Mothball Fleet under its own power.

The Mothball Fleet, also known as the National Defense Reserve Fleet, is a collection of old warships that have had a retirement much less active than the O’Brien. For the most part, they’ve been docked idly for decades in Suisun Bay, near Benicia. Moloney spent over 12 years on them, back when they were still sailing.

Moloney remembers each of those ships individually, like old friends. He even knows exactly where they live now.

“I had four of them in G row, and one in F row. One of them, the Hassayampa, which is the closest one to shore, if you pull into the overlook, she's the one you'll see,” Moloney says.

He recalls his time aboard the Hassayampa: "I spent five and half years on her, four and a half in command and those were just wonderful days. It hurts to see her there, just wasting away, it really hurts to think about having her scrapped.”

On a recent Monday morning, Joe Pecoraro and I board a small boat in Suisun Bay, and head for the Mothball Fleet to see the soon-to-be-scrapped ships.

“Over here is G Row”, Pecoraro points out, “There’s only four ships left on it, and the outboard ship here is next on the list to leave.” He is the fleet’s superintendent and has worked to maintain the ships since 1991.

On board the moving boat, we head into the row, and there, right where Captain Moloney said it would be is the USS Hassayampa, creaking away out on the water.

“It gets a lot quieter up on deck,” Pecoraro notes. “On a day when there's not a lot of wind, and not a lot of wave action, it's very still and quiet and once in a while you hear you know, the creaking of a fender, or the creaking of the line or a wire.”

The ships are massive, most stretching over 500 feet in length. They weigh anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 tons – and that’s without cargo. From far away, they look noble and intimidating, and undeniably powerful. In reality, the majority of them aren’t going anywhere unless they are tugged out.

“I used to dislike that word ‘Mothball Fleet,’" says Pecoraro. He explains why the fleet received its nickname: "It’s akin to like you're going to put clothes away for a long time and you put mothballs in it, to keep the moths, you know, from eating it up.”

Long-term storage has its risks. In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration found Lead, Cadmium, Zinc, and Chromium in the water and other species near the ships. The likely culprit is the lead-based paint flaking off the ships’ exteriors, paint that was originally designed to kill aquatic specific that adhere to ship hulls.

“And this paint was just sloughing off into San Francisco Bay in massive quantities”, says Michael Wall, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The levels of toxicity around the ships weren’t that much higher than other parts of San Francisco Bay, but they were significant enough that the NRDC sued the government over the fleet, and won. The Federal Maritime Administration has done a lot to clean up over the past three years. Over 300 tons of the hazardous paint has been removed, and the ships that were in the worst shape are gone.

“So this fleet is in much better condition than it was,” Wall notes. “And the Maritime Administration should be commended for cleaning it up and getting the site, getting its house in order”.

Keeping that house clean is a full time job—actually, quite a few. As Pecoraro and I head back towards shore, we pass the fleet’s main offices, which are floating at the end of a long dock, several hundred feet from the fleet. The dock buzzes with workers in union suits and hardhats, including crane operators, riggers, and mechanics just to name a few.

There are electricians who come out monthly to inspect the fire alarms, another crew that checks the ships’ moorings, anchors, and chains, every day. And the whole time, someone has to make sure the insides of the ships stay dry, so the Mothball Fleet doesn’t mold.

Today, there are only 28 ships left for the fleet crew to maintain. Eighteen will be scrapped over the next couple of years, including five that will be gone by the end of this year.

Back on the Jeremiah O’Brien, Captain Moloney gives me a lesson on how to stay upright on his ship, which is definitely still in working order.

“Okay, practical lesson here,” Maloney begins. “You're on a ship. As you're going down the ladder, trail your hand like this, palm up. In case you lose your balance, you pitch forward, the strong part of your hand is holding instead of little fingers.”

Most ships in the Mothball Fleet will take one last journey – a 6,500 mile trip from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, and finally to a scrapping facility in Texas. Not the O’Brien, though: Captain Moloney’s ship will be making a different journey, an 11,000-mile round trip to Normandy to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“That's a warm up cruise for 2044 – going back for the 100th anniversary,” Moloney adds. “D-Day plus 75, that's pretty good. But, Pearl Harbor Day is coming up in 2016. Pearl Harbor plus 75 – let’s go to Hawaii!”

The O’Brien seems to be able to go anywhere, but for Moloney, it can’t quite replace the ships that are gone forever, and the big empty space they leave behind.