Laffey on way home to Patriots

The 377-foot-long Laffey is moored at Shipyard Creek in North Charleston.

Brad Nettles

Patriots Point, a military backdrop and favorite stumping ground for several Republican presidential candidates leading up to today's primary election, will close at 9 a.m. Sunday for a week to reberth the hull-repaired World War II destroyer Laffey.

The old warship -- which remains moored at Shipyard Creek in North Charleston after undergoing repairs at a cost of more than $9 million in 2009 -- is set to be brought home next week.

The Laffey will be docked parallel to the Yorktown, the World War II aircraft carrier that anchors one of the Charleston area's top tourist attractions.

The naval and maritime museum on the edge of Charleston Harbor in Mount Pleasant was originally set to shut down Jan. 9 for a week, but opted to delay work for two weeks to a predetermined backup week so it could line up all the contractors for the intricate task of repositioning the ship.

At least two GOP candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, used Patriots Point during the last two weeks as campaign stops, but Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette said work wasn't delayed so the candidates could stump there in the two crucial weeks leading up to today's GOP primary.

"We originally picked two different weeks, and next week was our backup week," Burdette said. "This is the most important event in my life right now. We wouldn't have stopped it for the president of the United States if he was coming here."

Patriots Point will be closed a full week during one of its slowest times of the year. The weeklong closing is the longest Burdette can remember for Patriots Point during his short tenure, and it's possibly the longest shutdown since Hurricane Hugo devastated Charleston in 1989, but he couldn't say for sure.

The closure will cost Patriots Point about $17,000 in lost revenue, Burdette said.

Known as "The Ship That Would Not Die" for withstanding Japanese bombs and kamikaze attacks, the Laffey will be docked where the submarine Clamagore now sits. The Clamagore will be moved to the south end of the Yorktown where the Coast Guard cutter Ingham once sat near the marina. The cutter was transferred to Key West, Fla., in 2009.

Laffey's return will require a 60-foot section of the concrete pier leading to the ships to be removed so the ship can be anchored next to the Yorktown.

Crews are expected to start work Sunday on the $1 million project by cutting into the pier and underlying electrical, water and sewer lines. It's possible the pier section could be moved onto a barge late Sunday, but it could happen Monday, Burdette said.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed that everything will go according to plan," Burdette said.

Several Laffey veterans want to see the ship come home, including Bill Stegall of Charlotte, who served aboard the ship during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

The ship took the former radar room sailor around the world during a two-year stint that included blockading a harbor in North Korea, where Stegall remembers the Laffey exchanging fire with the enemy's artillery emplacements embedded in mountain caves.

Stegall, a retired law enforcement officer who is 79, has visited the Laffey several times since it docked at Patriots Point 30 years ago.

"I'm happy she is coming home," he said. "She took me on a long ride and that was home for two years, and I would like to see her again."

Patriots Point will mark the Laffey's return in a special ceremony during the spring. Plans have not been arranged.