What Is A “Fitting End” For A Ship?

08Dec11

What is a fitting end for a ship?

What is a fitting end anyway? An end with dignity, solemnity or respect? Does a ship deserve anything approaching respect?

As much as I love ships, they are after all, just vehicles. Hunks of steel, wiring, plumbing, electronics and other assorted mechanical bits and pieces. They carry cargo and people from place to place. Ships can be a source of national prestige and pride. They bring power to distant shores. They are the big stick with which a President walks softly.

The officers and crew can’t help but endow their ships with human traits. Men who have sailed into harms way in destroyers and submarines and tankers, then been safely delivered home, develop an understandable affection for their vessels.

They hate to see their ships destroyed – but, realistically, you can’t save everything.

With 50,000+ registered ships in the world, very, very few will be preserved beyond their commercially or militarily viable days. Most will be driven up on the beaches of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and a host of other 3rd world countries with little or no environmental regulations. Once there, they will be literally torn apart with hand tools and blow torches. The steel, brass and other materials will be recycled into razor blades, boxes of nails, the rear quarter panel of your Chevy, and an endless list of other products.

I live in the Boston area and we preserve practically everything. If you visit Paul Revere’s house, you’ll see we’ve actually saved his chamberpot. But, it’s much more expensive to maintain a ship than a house or a chamberpot. That’s why so few are preserved.

Warships do fare better then their ocean-going sisters. A handful are preserved for their educational and historic value. The Queen Mary comes to mind.

Here in New England, we have The Constitution, the destroyers Cassin Young and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr, battleship Massachusetts, cruiser Salem, and the submarines Lionfish, Albacore, and Nautilus.

The only other museum ships I can think of in the region are the Charles W. Morgan – a whaling ship from the 19th century and the steamship Ticonderoga.  (The Mayflower in Plymouth is a reproduction.)

According to a recent article in The Boston Globe, the USS Cassin Young may be nearing the end of its days as an museum ship. It’s simply too expensive. We need the money for teachers, roads and Medicare.

If not preserved, is there another fitting end for a ship? For warships, the answer is “yes.” It’s appropriate but it’s not necessarily pretty.

My Father-in-law served on a destroyer/minesweeper during the Korean War. The USS Fitch was built at the Boston Navy Yard in early 1941. She was built as a destroyer and later converted to a mine sweeper. She was just 348 feet long, 36 feet wide with 276 officers and crew. For a little ship, the USS Fitch had a enviable war record. She patrolled the shores of Normandy on D-Day and was anchored in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri. She was there for two pivotal points in history.

I did some research to see what finally happened to his ship and shared my findings with him one afternoon at our kitchen table.

I explained that she was retired from active duty and mothballed in 1956. In July 1971, the Navy decided she could never be reactivated. She was a warship unsuited to modern warfare. She was too small and too old and too expensive to refit. The Navy, however, had one more mission for this old war veteran.

In November of 1973, she was towed to the coast of Florida and anchored in deep water. Aircraft flying off the USS Forestall used the ship for target practice and sank her.

“They sank my Fitch?” my Father-in-law asked, eyes tearing up.

“We sailed with The Forestall and they sank my Fitch?” he added, slowly shaking his head from side to side.

“Isn’t that better than being scrapped?” I asked. He did not reply. He looked stunned and disappointed.

I think, in the end, he agreed, but I’m sorry I told him. I think he was better off thinking she was laid-up the back waters of some vast reserve fleet.

The USS Fitch was one of the few ships to reach what I call a fitting end. She was a warship and ended her life furthering the training of a sister warship’s crew. She was built to fight and died so others could learn to fight.

That is about the best one can hope for.

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4 Responses to “What Is A “Fitting End” For A Ship?”

  1. Data Transformation
    I agree with your Life is Priceless | Fr. Frank Pavone’s Blog, wonderful post Data Transformation

  2. 2 Ed

    The cruise ship I worked on in the 80’s was sold for scrap is being dismantled in Taiwan. A great boat, so sad to see it go.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Oceanic_(1965)

  3. 3 Brad Barber

    My dad served on the Fitch from its commission until after Japan surrendered. I heard the D-day story and Spitzburgen stories all my young life. I lost my dad in 1981 when I was just 21.
    My Navy vet son (CVN 73 WASHINGTON) and I are both divers. Do you know the exact location of the wreck? Is it diveable? It would be an honor to pay my respects to her in person.

    Brad Barber son of James K Barber

    • I have not yet started a serious search for the records indicating her location. I suspect it was in deep water off the Florida coast.


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