A FLEETING LOOK AT THE ‘GHOST SHIPS’ THAT ONCE DOMINATED SUISUN BAY

With Halloween upon us, CalVet is seeing ghosts again – or at least imagining them.

In October 2020, CalVet Connect introduced you to the spooky emanations residing in the bowels of the haunted USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier docked in Alameda.

The silent armada at Suisun Bay.

This time, it’s the so-called “Ghost Fleet” that once dominated Suisun Bay near Benicia with hundreds of neatly moored warships, most of them veterans of World War II. Today, however, the ghosts of ships dramatically outnumber the actual ships—only eight remain.

Suisun Bay is home to the United States Maritime Administration’s National Defense Reserve Fleet. The quick backstory.

After World War I ended in 1918, the U.S. War Department dramatically downsized its fleet by shedding many of its cargo and other support ships. After all, wasn’t it supposed to be the “war to end all wars?”  The powers that be determined they didn’t need to maintain such a huge Navy with the world at peace.

Bad decision. Germany, under Hitler, soon rebuilt its war machine and began terrorizing Europe in the late 1930s. Japan ramped up to do the same in the Pacific. The U.S. sent 50 outdated destroyers to Great Britain to use against Germany as part of Lend-Lease in 1940. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Americans lacked ships that could immediately be returned to duty. Fortunately, we had the resources to build new ones with relative speed. Even so, consider it a lesson learned.

When World War II ended, the military in 1946 established reserve fleets at numerous locations—Suisun Bay, San Diego, Astoria (Oregon), in Washington along the West Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and along the Eastern Seaboard. Consolidations over time left the reserve fleets with about 100 total ships strategically kept at Fort Eustis, Virginia, Beaumont, Texas, and at Suisun Bay. The fleet includes a “Ready Reserve” component of ships that remain on stand-by status.

A photo of the United States Navy Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, March 26, 1947.
U.S. Navy Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, 1947.

The original concept was that the reserve fleet’s ships could be restored to service in a matter of days to a few months—many were. Some of the ships moored at Suisun Bay were recommissioned to serve in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars.

Suisun Bay’s “Ghost Fleet” swelled to more than 500 vessels at its peak in the 1960s—a silent armada of Victory ships, logistics ships, cargo ships, submarine tenders, submarine rescue ships, and crane ships were among the many calling Suisun Bay home. Some of the ships were armed with heavy artillery.

Also called the Mothball Fleet, the Ghost Fleet in Suisun Bay eventually grew to become such a tourist attraction that the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) built a vista point overlooking the fleet from a hillside along Highway 680. Onlookers could see ships that are now floating museums such as the battleship USS Iowa. During World War II, the Iowa carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to North Africa to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. It returned to the Pacific to fight in important battles in the Philippines Sea and Leyte Gulf. It is now moored at the Port of Los Angeles.

Suisun Bay also was home, at times, to Victory and Liberty cargo ships, including the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, which is now a national Liberty Ship museum in San Francisco.

The Ghost Fleet was home to the Glomar Explorer, a ship built in cahoots with eccentric movie mogul Howard Hughes under the guise of mining manganese from the ocean floor. It’s real purpose was to recover a sunken Soviet submarine near Hawaii as part of Project Azorian, a top-secret CIA operation in 1974. The Soviet sub, K-129, carried nuclear warheads. The story of this episodic adventure became a movie titled “Azorian: Raising of the K-129” (available on Amazon Prime). The Glomar was scrapped in China in 2015.

Others vessels from the Ghost Fleet were returned to service as grain transports during the Cold War-era nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt in 1956. Two ships went on to become training ships for the California Maritime Academy at Vallejo, and one – the TS Golden Bear – remains in use today.

Indeed, the Ghost Fleet saw perhaps as many as 1,000 ships come and go over the decades. However, environmental litigation – many ships shed paint and other toxins that polluted the bay – along with impacts of the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1993, prompted the shrinking of the Ghost Fleet. By 1999, only 101 remained. Some were towed away to be scrapped and some to be repurposed, while others were purchased by nonprofit groups for historical or museum uses.

The eight ships remaining at Suisun Bay include mostly cargo ships and a former Navy oceanographic vessel.

As for ghosts where the Ghost Fleet once dominated? They exist perhaps only in the imaginations of those who can recall the fleet in its heyday, or those who can imagine the ships and their crews in wartime action. But the place is not without some eeriness. Ships are known to make some spooky noises at times.

The fleet rest in the bay.
Suisun Bay, the final resting place for many a ship.

During the 1997 blockbuster movie “Titanic,” the ship groaned as it took on water after hitting the iceberg. Those groaning – almost belching – sounds were very real: recorded from Ghost Fleet ships by Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects company founded by Modesto native George Lucas of Star Wars fame.

Perhaps those were the sounds of the Ghost Fleet’s ghosts making their voices heard.

Happy Halloween from CalVet!

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