The Day – From the museum to the junkyard

During World War II, Electric Boat built 74 submarines. Those not lost in action had a normal lifespan and were later replaced.

Six of them defied the odds and survived in maritime museums across the country.

That number may soon drop to five.

The Clamagore, which was launched at EB in 1945, is likely to become the first US submarine to be scrapped after being kept as a museum ship.

The decision by Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, SC, comes after years of exploring options for the decaying ship. The move is opposed by a group of veteran submarines.

The fate of Clamagore highlights the pitfalls of the still emerging business of maintaining former naval vessels as public attractions.

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Decades in salt water have taken their toll Clamagoresaid Mayci Rechner, spokeswoman for Patriots Point.

“We’ve always fought this battle since she came here,” she said, but the problems have gotten worse over the past decade.

The main ballast tanks corrode, causing buoyancy problems and posing a threat to the environment. The boat contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which must be disposed of to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards. It also has 504 lead-acid batteries each weighing 1.5 tons.

Although the problems are contained for the moment, there are fears that the boat could sink in a hurricane, Rechner said.

In 2019, the cost of the restoration was estimated at $9.35 million, more than the museum says it can afford.

“There is a commercial element to what we do at Patriots Point,” says a document linked to Clamagore on the museum’s website.

Docking the submarine on land was explored but would cost $5.8 million according to a 2010 estimate. Other groups expressed interest in taking Clamagore, but none had enough money, said Rechner.

Without good options, the museum announced on March 18 that its board had voted unanimously to begin the process of dismantling and recycling the 77-year-old submarine, which is expected to cost $2 million. No timeline has been set.

The Navy has no record of the scrapping of the twenty or so submarines it donated to museums.

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As Clamagore (SS-343) glided into the Thames from EB’s North Yard on 25 February 1945, the conflict for which she was built was nearly over. Leaving Groton that summer for the Pacific and her first war patrol, Clamagore had not reached the Panama Canal until the end of hostilities.

So while this is a WWII vintage, it is more of a Cold War artifact. Like other Balao-class submarines, which were built in large numbers, she underwent post-war modernizations that improved her capabilities and changed her appearance. Twice Clamagore was upgraded under the Greater Underwater Propulsion Power, or GUPPY, program.

In 1948, she became a GUPPY II, which left her with a rounded bow and a two-level “step sail” in place of her original turret. In 1962 she was converted to the GUPPY III, with a taller “North Atlantic” sail and a 15ft hull extension. Clamagore was one of nine GUPPY IIIs and is the last in existence.

After its last 12 years of service, while based at Groton, the dismantling of Clamagore in 1975 marked an important milestone. Two decades into the nuclear age, Clamagore and another boat, which was retired the same day, were the last diesel submarines based at Groton, ending an era dating back to World War I.

Instead of being scrapped or sold to a foreign navy, Clamagore was donated in 1979 to Patriots Point. For four decades, she sailed alongside two other World War II ships, the aircraft carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Laffey.

During this time, the submarine was named a National Historic Landmark. The application form notes that as the last GUPPY III, Clamagore “represents the Navy’s ultimate use and technological adaptation of wartime diesel submarines”.

The document, written in 1988, calls Clamagore “a well-preserved ship”.

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It was around this time that William Bryar began to question certain aspects of Clamagore’s maintenance. Bryar, who lives half an hour from Patriots Point, served in the submarine at Groton from 1970 to 1975.

He was one of a group of volunteers, mostly retired or active-duty submariners, who helped keep Clamagore in shape.

Bryar believes Patriots Point never committed to preserving the submarine and inflated the cost of restoration. He said he formed the Clamagore Restoration and Maintenance Association, or CRAMA, a decade ago when the museum considered sinking the boat as an artificial reef.

The mission of the group, which has about 4,000 members, is to save Clamagore and either move it or help keep it where it is, Bryar said.

In 2019, CRAMA Patriots Point sued, arguing that the museum has a poor record of maintaining historic ships, that it does not have the authority to scrap Clamagore, and that doing so would violate state law.

A judge at the Ninth Circuit Court of Common Pleas in South Carolina dismissed the suit, ruling that CRAMA lacked standing to sue, said Nancy Bloodgood, CRAMA’s attorney. She filed a motion to amend and said Patriots Point is proceeding with the disposal while the sub is in litigation.

Rechner said the case was dismissed and declined to comment further.

Under the Navy’s ship donation process, in effect since 1948, title passes to the recipient, according to the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington. The arrangement is subject to the terms of a gift contract.

Additionally, the National Historic Preservation Act requires the Navy to assess how actions such as disposal would affect historic properties. At the request of Patriots Point, the Navy conducted this assessment and in 2019 consented to decommissioning.

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While Clamagore would be the first U.S. submarine museum ship to be broken up, other ships met this fate, including the aircraft carrier Cabot and several British and Soviet submarines.

The activity of preserving warships as museums is relatively new, dating back to the 1940s, said Ryan Szimanski, executive director of the Navy Historic Ships Associationwhich connects the museums to approximately 170 historic ships from around the world.

“We are still learning how long we can sustain ships like these,” Szimanski said. “We made a lot of mistakes.”

For example, the battleship Texas, moored near Houston, was inundated and sunk in mud for fear a hurricane would drag it out to sea, he said. The result was holes in the hull after decades of sand washing against it.

“These ships are artifacts like you would see behind glass in a regular museum, but they are the size of an office building,” Szimanski said.

Although one is sometimes scrapped, it is more common for a museum to acquire a ship and face so many expenses that the project never starts, he said. Then the ship is returned to the Navy.

This is similar to what happened with Croaker, another World War II EB-built submarine, which was open to the public in Groton from 1977 to 1987. Because restoration standards as part of the donation contract were expensive, the museum operator asked the Navy to take it. return. Croaker is now in Buffalo, NY

The other remaining wartime submarines built by EB are Becuna, in Philadelphia; Cavalla, in Galveston, Texas; Cobia, in Manitowoc, Wis.; and Cod, in Cleveland. Two later survivors are Marlin, launched in 1953 and now in Omaha, Neb.; and Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine.

Nautilus is the subject of a $36 million preservation project by EB at Naval Submarine Base Groton. The work includes repairs to the hull and superstructure, replacement of the upper deck and improved lighting and electrical work.

It is expected to return to the Submarine Force Museum in August and be open in September, said Chris Zendan, a spokesman for the base. The repairs should help Nautilus last another three decades.

Szimanski said it remains to be seen how long the old ships will be able to be maintained, as they were built to be scrapped after 20 years. The World War II ships, all of roughly the same age, could be nearing the end of their lives, he said. On April 14, the destroyer The Sullivans suffered a hull breach and partly sank at Buffalo.

While some ships can be preserved indefinitely with money, he said, others struggle to attract enough support.

For Clamagore, the time is almost up. The submarine was closed to the public in December, but Patriots Point allowed former crew members to return for one last tour, Rechner said.

The museum identifies the pieces to be salvaged and displayed, including sonar equipment, torpedo hatches and the periscope. The exhibition will be housed on Yorktown.

What remains of a submarine lost to the ravages of time will be preserved on a vessel that is two years older and much larger, with its own maintenance needs.

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About Bobby F. Lopez

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