The last battle of the Cassin Young
NEARLY SEVEN DECADES after surviving one of the last kamikaze attacks of World War II, the USS Cassin Young looks ready for the open seas. Its wedge-like bow splits the air, leading 376 feet of Navy-gray steel that exudes the speed and strength that made such destroyers critical to winning the war in the Pacific. The decks bristle with radar and weaponry, while pots and pans in the cramped galley sit ready to serve a wartime crew of 325. Up on the bridge, a single leather chair in the pilothouse awaits a commander to issue the order to weigh anchor.
If that order were to come right now, the Cassin Young would sink.
Today, the ship sits high and dry on blocks in the Charlestown Navy Yard, the national park that has been its home for more than 30 years. For most of that time, the USS Cassin Young DD-793 was moored in the harbor at the end of a pier. About a year ago, it was moved into Dry Dock 1 for what was supposed to be a less-than-six-month, $3.3 million overhaul. But about four months and more than $2 million into the job, the National Park Service halted work – the hull was in far worse shape than anyone had expected. The Park Service hired Ocean Technical Services of Gloucester, an engineering consultant, to survey the vessel’s condition. “The ship can no longer stay afloat without additional repairs,” the firm bluntly stated in a report.
According to the consultant, making the Cassin Young seaworthy enough to remain afloat for another half century would cost as much as $18.7 million. That’s nearly double the entire annual operating budget of the National Park Service in Boston. The Navy sent its own engineers to look at the ship in June; they believe repairs could cost less, though they have yet to provide a firm estimate.
Whatever the final price tag, both the Navy, which owns the ship, and the Park Service, which is responsible for its upkeep, say they don’t have the budget to repair the Cassin Young. Earlier this month, both sides were trying to devise a new plan, including a less expensive option that would at least buy time to find a more permanent fix. But even that price tag would probably hit seven digits. For now, then, that makes the ship a 2,050-ton hot potato.
Someone must step up and catch it soon. Dry Dock 1, which the Cassin Young now fills, is scheduled to receive an even more historic ship, the USS Constitution, in 2014. Navy officials would prefer the dry dock be available much sooner, because Old Ironsides will probably see heavy duty, including a possible return trip to Marblehead, during next year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812, in which the frigate played a major role. If the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat runs into trouble, protecting a venerable but rusting destroyer will be low on the list of Navy priorities.
The Cassin Young has survived nearly 70 years, but this battle between tight budget lines and corrosion at the waterline could be its last. It’s clear that everyone involved wants to save the ship, but as politicians like to say these days, now is the time to make tough choices between what we want and what we need. So an especially harsh possibility looms for this worthy maritime warrior. “With scarce resources to go around,” says Sean Hennessey, spokesman for the National Park Service in Boston, “scrapping the ship has to be on the table.”
UNLIKE THE STORIED USS CONSTITUTION, which was built in Boston, the Cassin Young is not rooted in the city. Though the Charlestown Navy Yard produced 14 other Fletcher-class destroyers just like it, the ship was built in California and came to Boston only occasionally for repairs. The war hero for whom the ship was named wasn’t from here, either. A native of Washington, D.C., Cassin Young was commanding a repair ship near the USS Arizona when that battleship exploded during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The blast threw Young and members of his crew overboard. Young got himself back on board the burning ship, ordered his crew to their posts, and managed to navigate the vessel safely across the harbor while plucking Arizona survivors from the water. Young, who received the congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery, later died when his ship was shelled during the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal.
Young’s naval namesake was commissioned on New Year’s Eve the year after his death. The ship’s wartime service is a historic index of key battles of World War II’s Pacific campaign, from Saipan and Guam to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. When a bomber sank the aircraft carrier Princeton in the Philippines in October 1944, the Cassin Young was there to rescue more than 120 men. The next spring, its gunners shot down five kamikaze planes off Okinawa, but a sixth exploded high up the foremast, killing one sailor and wounding 59. Then, in July 1945 – just two weeks before the Japanese surrender – a kamikaze plane hit the main deck near the forward smokestack, killing 22 men and wounding 45. (In an amazing display of damage control, the crew restored power to one engine, contained the fire, and had the ship underway in 20 minutes.)
Decommissioned in 1960, the Cassin Young spent nearly the next two decades mothballed in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, until the Navy agreed to loan it indefinitely to the Park Service in Boston. Here, it not only provides a second attraction for Constitution visitors, but serves as a tribute to the importance of the Charlestown Navy Yard, which employed 52,000 shipbuilders during World War II. “Cassin Young is an integral part of telling all those stories,” says Celeste Bernardo, deputy superintendent of Boston National Historical Park.
Since being opened to visitors in 1978, the Cassin Young has found a home port in Boston. In 2009, for example, the ship drew in excess of 203,000 visitors, more than twice as many as the Old State House. Some of those visitors have come from the fast-dwindling corps of World War II-era veterans, including former Cassin Young crew members. Steve Briand of Woburn, who coordinates a team of about 50 volunteers who help maintain the ship, turns emotional when he recalls one veteran who asked to go below deck to his old sleeping quarters. “His wife had died,” Briand recalls, “and he wanted to lie down on the bunk from which he wrote [her] love letters.”
As tourists walk the main deck on a recent Tuesday, Briand and a half dozen other volunteers are gathered below in the ward room. The men, three of them octogenarians, sit around a table that doubled as an operating slab during combat. Overlooking them is a portrait of Cassin Young.
The mere possibility of scrapping the ship infuriates these men, who have given tens of thousands of hours to repair and restore the vessel and its equipment. Briand says the volunteers’ passion and work have transformed the Cassin Young iinto one of the best museum ships in the nation. “If anything happens to this ship,” he says, “it happens to all of us.” “Next to Constitution, this is probably one of the most historic ships around,” says Bob Johnson, a Navy veteran from Rowley. “And it’s not going to go down without a fight.”
OF 175 FLETCHER-CLASS DESTROYERS built for World War II, the Cassin Young is one of only four left. These ships weren’t made to last; they were built to be agile and fast, which is why the Cassin Young’s hull is as thin as a quarter of an inch and why ships like it are now in trouble. “There is a perfect storm heading for a lot of these preserved ships,” says Brad King, executive director of Battleship Cove in Fall River. “These destroyers had a particularly short design life. In six months, they’d be either sunk or worn out – they weren’t called tin cans for nothing.”
At King’s museum, the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., while in no imminent danger of sinking, needs at least $10 million in repairs. How much has Battleship Cove raised? “Zero,” King says. He explains that the $15 fee to board the Kennedy and the other vessels is enough to cover operating costs, but not capital repairs. (Admission to the Cassin Young is free.)
“Many of the ships that have been donated by the Navy are facing some significant challenges,” says Glen Clark, deputy program manager for the Navy’s Inactive Ships Program. Clark is clear that the Navy expects the Park Service to fully fund any repairs to the Cassin Young. “We’ve had several conversations with the Park Service, which is committed to maintaining Cassin Young long term,” he says. “If they decide to return the vessel back to the Navy, there could be whole different scenarios as to what might happen.” Is scrapping one of them? “Certainly,” he admits, “but this is not the Park Service’s intention.”
Clark is optimistic that something will be worked out, especially since his Navy inspectors found that “the ship is in remarkable condition internally” and that “the real issue is exterior hull plating.” He says that the amount needed to pay for repairs, “based on the [Navy] surveyors, would seem to us to be smaller than what the Park Service estimated.”
But experts from Ocean Technical Services, the engineering firm hired by the Park Service, say the damage goes beyond the hull and into the rivet seams that hold the ship together. The Navy’s engineering team “could not see the hull as we saw it last year,” says company owner Joseph Lombardi, a Navy veteran who has been working with gray hulls and other ships since 1984. His firm spent months overseeing the hydro-blasting of the Cassin Young and then studying its hull, Lombardi says. “The Navy had less than a day.” He also believes several new coats of thick marine paint applied to the hull before the Navy team’s visit helped mask rusted rivets and other damage.
This summer, increasingly anxious to find a fix, the Navy and Park Service explored the idea of permanently moving the Cassin Young to nearby Dry Dock 2, which is owned by the City of Boston. But that option, too, may be sinking under high costs. Just barging Dry Dock 2’s caisson, the giant floating gate that allows water in and out, from its current location in Portsmouth to Boston would cost $80,000, according to Richard McGuinness, deputy director of waterfront planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. There would be additional costs to install the caisson, update the dry dock, which has been full of water for more than 30 years, and to dredge its mucky bottom. “We don’t have that kind of money,” McGuinness says.
In this era of what the politicians dub “tough choices,” this one may come down to saving or scrapping a World War II icon. Is there room even in a zealous budget-cutter’s heart for that dreaded phrase – “federal spending” – to save this destroyer? “I visit Cassin Young, and I want the ship to be in the water,” says political activist Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party. “I’m a defense hawk, but when I look at an issue like this, it’s a no-brainer that we simply just don’t have the money.” Speaking for herself, not for the Tea Party, Varley is “fundamentally opposed to government funding a ship in every harbor.” Instead, she thinks ships such as the Cassin Young should be turned over to and maintained by the private sector.
But museums and other private groups across the country are struggling just to maintain – even keep afloat – historic ships they already have. “Groups wanting to save these ships have to have deep pockets [and] raise money in a very inhospitable time,” says Jeff Nilsson, executive director of the Virginia-based Historic Naval Ships Association. “This is not your everyday used car that you’re buying. It’s a great big gray thing that sits in the water and requires a lot of money for upkeep.”
Indeed, in less gloomy financial times, private volunteers and others raised millions of dollars to save the ferry ship Nobska, which served Martha’s Vineyard between 1925 and 1973 and was the last coastal steamer in the United States. But when the money finally ran out in 2006, the Nobska was dismantled for scrap in the very same Charlestown dry dock that now holds the Cassin Young.
EVEN SCRAPPING the destroyer would require money no one has. The ship’s size and factors such as hazmat concerns make it impossible to dismantle in Dry Dock 1, so it would need to be made seaworthy before it could be towed to a wrecking yard. And the Park Service realizes that spending money to turn a National Historic Landmark into razor blades would cause a bit of a public relations problem. “[T]he public will likely be concerned about the investment of taxpayer dollars toward a project that led to the ship being scrapped,” notes a Park Service memo from June.
So the Navy and Park Service keep scrambling for a solution. One may be to kick the tin can down the pier, making the Cassin Young just seaworthy enough to stay afloat until work is completed on the Constitution and Dry Dock 1 is again available. But even that would require lots of cash, when little is available, and lots of time, which is running out. “We are still looking at different possibilities about how we keep her here and open to the public, which is our primary goal,” says the Park Service’s Bernardo. “I hope to have some sort of resolution by the end of the year.”
One uniquely interested spectator will be closely watching the battle to save the Cassin Young from afar. “I’m Cassin Young the Second, so people are going to say that I want to save the ship for obvious reasons,” says the grandson of the Medal of Honor recipient, who lives, appropriately, in Annapolis, Maryland. “But this ship is a symbol of what the greatest generation did to stop World War II, which along with the Civil War, was the greatest threat this country has ever faced.”
Like his father and grandfather before him, Young is a Naval Academy graduate; he spent 20 years in the Navy, much of it flying bombers. Now an airline pilot, he occasionally visits the Cassin Young during his layovers in Boston. “When I walk on there, I’m looking at a ship that is in better shape than some of the active-duty ships I served on,” he says.
For a cause like this, Young wants people to look beyond rusted rivets and federal deficits. “This ship represents maybe the last period in American history where we all agreed about what was a just fight. And it is next to Old Ironsides in Boston, where our country began,” he says. “Some things are just worth it.”
Phil Primack, a Medford-based writer and editor, is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.