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Will friends be able to save the 'Ship that Would Not Die'?

The Post and Courier
Saturday, February 21, 2009


Video

On Dec. 11, 2008, the USS Laffey sprang a serious leak as three new holes appeared in its hull. This video, shot by workers for Eason Diving, show water pouring into the ship, an increasingly common - and distressing -occurrence for Patriots Point officials.

On Dec. 11, 2008, the USS Laffey sprang a serious leak as three new holes appeared in its hull. This video, shot by workers for Eason Diving, show water pouring into the ship, an increasingly common - and distressing -occurrence for Patriots Point officials. Watch

Water seeps through her spongy skin, rushing around broken ribs and further crumbling a damaged backbone, leaving the destroyer Laffey's caretakers at Patriots Point racing against the elements to resuscitate her.

It'll take about $7.7 million to save "The Ship that Would Not Die" in unrelenting World War II kamikaze attacks. But the Patriots Point Development Authority doesn't have the money and has only one year to find it.

Laffey fits into Patriots Point's $64.6 million master plan, which includes refurbishing the museum's four warships. But the destroyer's urgent need to "stop the bleeding," as the authority puts it, means that plan might unfold too late.

"To be frank, there may be some

very hard decisions ahead about what can be done and what can't be done," said John Hagerty, authority chairman. "We think it's our duty to preserve all of them."

With the Laffey struggling to stay afloat, he added, "We think it's our duty to let people know the details of that situation and to find out whether the money is going to be available or not."

Brig. Gen. Hugh Tant III, Patriots Point's executive director, said the Laffey will either head to dry dock for repairs or sink. The authority will have spent about $360,000 in emergency funds by May, when Tant expects to have her travel-ready.

While taking the destroyer out of the water and into the shop would cost millions, Tant pointed out that sinking her into a federal ocean reef would also.

When he called Sonny Walker, president of the USS Laffey Association, to share the bad news, Walker rallied his service brothers in Pennsylvania and in Florida, jumped in the car at his Maryland home and met them at Patriots Point.

"It was like visiting your mother who was in the hospital with a terminal illness," said Walker, who served aboard the ship in the '60s.

Patriots Point staff noticed Laffey's first leak in October. The patches, from there, have totaled 115.

At its worst, 3,000 gallons of seawater flooded into the ship every hour.

A 22-year Navy veteran, Paul Jeffers likes to tell the story that the day he started his current position as maintenance supervisor was the day the Laffey closed to the public.

In his 18 years with Patriots Point, Jeffers said Laffey was only watertight once, shortly after dry dock repairs made in 1995. But those repairs, originally scheduled for the entire ship, were modified to include only 81 percent. Those areas that didn't receive the extra reinforcement are the source of today's problems, authority officials say. Climbing around the ship, Jeffers held up clumps of metallic red dust where the hull simply disintegrated. He pointed to a man-sized hole that tears through the ship's innards, where a worker did fall through the rust. And he shows the spot where a man vacuumed up a hidden hole and plugged it with his finger until help arrived.

Jeffers worried about routine. "It's become old-hat now, and that's bad because you aren't reacting as quickly," he said.

Laffey endured 22 attacking kamikaze planes in 1945. It lost nearly one-third of its crew but shot down 11 warplanes and earned the Presidential Unit Citation and five battle stars for service.

Private donors have sent in $30,000 for the ship over the past few months, ranging from $10,000 from the Laffey Association and $1 from a 6-year-old girl who also sent a crayon drawing with a note: "Please use my dollar to fix the Laffey. I been on it and I don't want it to sink. Love, Holly."

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, remembers walking the ship with his late grandfather, who shot down a kamikaze so close to striking Laffey that the debris injured some of his fellow sailors. The elder Smith earned the Silver Star in that battle and retold its glory at his three-stool home bar in Atlanta.

Rep. Smith recently introduced a bill to give Patriots Point the authority to issue bonds and expects to see the funding needed to keep Laffey alive.

"It would take $3.5 million to sink her," he said. "Certainly we can get a combination of public and private dollars to keep her alive."

 

Story referred by shipmate Hoot Gibson, FTSN (57-60)

 

 

 
 

 


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