By William Cole, The Honolulu Advertiser - February 28, 2006
Forwarded by YNCS Don Harribine, USN (Retired)

PEARL HARBOR - Hawaii finally has an aircraft carrier. But it could be sunk in a military exercise. At 820 feet, the ship is smaller than the full-fledged flattop that Sen. Daniel Inouye, (D-Hawaii) has sought to be based here. The mini carrier comes with no crew, no aircraft and certainly no multimillion-dollar economic impact.

The amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood is the latest and largest addition to the Pearl Harbor ghost fleet, a little-publicized but very visible collection of decommissioned Navy ships that are sold to other countries, mothballed for possible re-use, headed for the scrap pile or designated to become targets in “sink exercises.”

Touring the Middle Loch harbor where 39 ships, barges and various other craft are stored is a nostalgic and sometimes spooky journey through Navy and maritime history.

“It’s kind of eerie. You think back to the times you were on the ship, and you think of all the people, in the passageways and mess deck, talking story,” said Luis Gaytan, a marine inspector for the facility who from 1995 to 1997 was aboard the Cushing, a destroyer now in the ghost fleet.“

There are always stories that if you go on there, sometimes you hear noises. You hear voices that are sometimes left behind,” the Ewa Beach man said. “It seems like the spirits are down there and haven’t gone away.”

Walter Leonard, the director of the Navy inactive ship facility, remembers the Navy skipper who visited, twice, over the years to see his former ship, the destroyer Hoel. “He just wanted to come out and see his ship and make sure we were taking care of it,” Leonard said.

The Navy facility, which has a fiscal 2006 budget of $3.5 million, is one of three remaining bone yards for decommissioned vessels.

Leonard said the others are in Bremerton, WA and Philadelphia. “There once were a lot more,” he said. “There was one in Guam, one in Norfolk, Va., and many others. But as our inventory of ships has decreased, we’ve closed a number of them.”

The Middle Loch facility, renamed four times since Leonard started working there in 1967, is now known as the Inactive Ships On-Site Maintenance Office.

It was created after World War II, when the Navy suddenly had a surplus of dry docks and ships in such places as Pearl Harbor, Guam and the Philippines. Retired carriers go to Bremerton, which has extra-deep draft, Leonard said.

Middle Loch is about 30 feet deep where the Belleau Wood is tied up. The ship contingent includes a cruiser, two destroyers, a destroyer tender, a combat store ship, an amphibious transport ship, two amphibious cargo ships, a dock landing ship, three tank landing ships, an amphibious assault ship and a Coast Guard cutter.

The longest stay has been by the YRDH-6, a 151-foot by 35-foot non-self-propelled hull workshop that arrived in 1946, and remains in use as that today. The Belleau Wood, which came into Middle Loch on Nov. 16, deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2004 with helicopters and AV-8B Harrier jump jets. More than 60 combat sorties were flown off its flight deck.

In 1992, landing craft and helicopters from the ship delivered trucks, bulldozers, portable toilets, water purification equipment and food to victims of Hurricane Iniki on Kauai. The flight deck now is empty except for an anchor. The island, or superstructure, normally the nerve center of many watchful eyes, is devoid of people, flags and pennants.

Once swarming with aircraft, the hangar bay, longer than a football field, is vacant, as is a mess hall with its red metal chairs and Formica-topped tables. Leonard said the Belleau Wood won’t go back into service, and either will be scrapped or sunk. Despite such fate, inactive ships sometimes get a final chance at glory on the big screen. For the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, a tugboat was positioned behind a mothballed destroyer and in the movie it appeared that steam was coming out of the destroyer’s stacks. In the more recent Pearl Harbor, diesel fuel was set afire in drums beneath a hatch to make it appear that a ship was on fire, Leonard said.

Editor's note: Belleau Wood should not be confused with an aircraft carrier. She is a Tarawa Class Amphibious Assault Ship (General-purpose) and was decommissioned on 13 October 2005. For more information, click this link.