James Island resident Lee Hunt stood the first watch onboard the destroyer Laffey during World War II, saw shipmates die beside him in fiery kamikaze attacks and, nearly seven decades later, came to see the ship re-emerge on the anniversary of its commissioning day Monday.
Hunt remembered the explosions, the deaths and the struggle to rid the Laffey of water, fire and unexploded ammunition during the Japanese onslaught. "We saved the ship," he said.
But "The Ship That Would Not Die" faced a new battle last year after its hull sprang more than 100 rusty holes, and Mount Pleasant military attraction Patriots Point faced a financial dilemma of how to fix it. After securing state loan of $9.2 million and spending it on months of dry dock repairs at Detyens Shipyards, Patriots Point officials showed the ship to reporters at a State Ports Authority pier Monday.
Standing on the deck after a tour, Hunt said, "I'm proud of this ship and proud to see it in as good shape as it is."
Patriots Point employees stood on deck cleaning the Laffey and preparing it to return to public exhibit.
Joe Lombardi, the marine surveyor who led the ship's restoration, explained that the repairs include thicker plating all around to keep it watertight, plus fresh paint to protect that work.
"What you see today is almost the finished product of a long process," he said.
That process began with a slow limp to the shipyard in August. There workers completed "miles and miles of welding" and replaced the spongy, rust-eaten hull with fresh steel.
The ship's belly, formerly wet, corroding metal, now shines dry with a glossy coat of terra cotta-colored paint. Lombardi pointed out that much of the framework inside the ship no longer existed before the repairs began.
"This has never been done on a historical ship before," he said. In addition to the thicker steel, the Laffey received coats of industrial paints on both her interior and exterior.
"We could've saved on steel; we could've saved on paint," Lombardi said. "What you save now you pay for in the long term."
Laffey Association President Sonny Walker, a Maryland resident who drove out of his snowy hometown to take the tour, presented a plaque to Lombardi on Monday. It read: "You will always be a shipmate."
Walking through the Laffey, Walker remembered hanging damp and smelly pea coats in a communal closet, waking up to "the best baked bread in the world" cooking in the ship's oven and, looking down at his waistline, how much wider the hatches seemed back then.
The ship will stay at the ports authority's Pier November at Veterans Terminal in North Charleston until Patriots Point determines a permanent home. It can remain at the port pier until May 31 without charge.
Patriots Point Executive Director Dick Trammell said his agency will meet with a consultant next week to discuss a plan for both the Laffey and the submarine Clamagore, which might move to a shore exhibit. Returning the Laffey to Patriots Point will require dredging and new mooring structures.
Trammell said the work on the Laffey exceeded the amount of the state loan but that Detyens Shipyards completed the job with the funds available.
Patriots Point now must determine how to repay that state loan. "That, we're working on now," Trammell said. "But we've got our ship."
If you go
Patriots Point Development Authority invites the public to bring its ideas and concerns for the military attraction to an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. today at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park. Representatives from Patriots Point and the firm developing its master plan, AECOM (formerly Glatting Jackson), will hold the forum.