Lee Hunt of James Island remembers Japanese suicide bombers crashing their planes into the gun mount above his station in the powder magazine onboard the destroyer Laffey.
"The ship was on fire," Hunt said Wednesday of the warship that fought the enemy off Okinawa in World War II. "We were more concerned with saving the ship than ourselves."
He and fellow crew members flooded his station to keep the gunpowder from exploding.
"Then we had to pump it out to keep the ship from sinking," he said.
Though 32 crew members died and 71 suffered injuries during the April 16, 1945, attack by more than 50 Japanese aircraft, Hunt escaped injury and went on to serve a long career with the former Atlantic Coastline Railroad after the war. He served three years on the Laffey.
On Wednesday, Hunt, 85, watched the old warship, which became known as "The Ship That Would Not Die," slip into a new berth at Patriots Point after extensive repairs.
"You can't describe it," Hunt said of his feelings about the ship's return as he stood beside the World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown and watched the polished-up Laffey slowly inched into place where the submarine Clamagore sat until Monday. "It was long overdue."
Patriots Point brought the Laffey home Wednesday after repairing its rusting hull in North Charleston at a cost of $9.2 million under a loan provided by the state, which the naval and maritime museum must repay within two years.
The 377-foot-long destroyer had been docked at Shipyard Creek since 2009.
"It's been a long fight," Laffey Association President Sonny Walker of Maryland said from the flight deck of the Yorktown. He served on the destroyer from 1960 to 1963.
"When I got a phone call in Maryland in 2008 that the Laffey was taking on water, I came down and saw water coming in through the hull and I thought it was the end of her," Walker said. "When it was taken up river for repairs, we chartered a little boat and cheered and laughed because it was finally taken to the shipyard for repairs."
As the Laffey approached the bow of the Yorktown on Wednesday, Walker and fellow crew members on the aircraft carrier's flight deck whooped it up, popped the cork on a champagne bottle and blew air horns to signal its return.
"She's riding a little higher than when she went up the river," said Stephen D. Smith, who served on the Laffey from 1960 to 1962. "It's wonderful to see her come back. It just brings tears to your eyes."
Joe Lombardi of Ocean Technical Services of Massachusetts oversaw the restoration.
"It was double-plated over 80 percent of its hull and 60 to 70 percent of it was badly rusted," he said. "We replaced the bulkheads, the keel, the plates, the frame and added a high-end paint.
"It had quarter-inch steel plating, and we replaced it a foot above the water line with three-eighths of an inch plating," Lombardi said. "It's the best restored historical vessel in the country now."
Patriots Point board Chairman Ray Chandler could not have been happier with the ship's smooth return.
"For a lot of people, this is the culmination of a tremendous amount of work," Chandler said. "I see this as a beginning point of a great time for Patriots Point."
The entire $1.1 million operation of removing a 60-foot section of the concrete pier leading to the Yorktown on Sunday, extracting the Clamagore and repositioning it south of the Yorktown on Monday and Tuesday and guiding the Laffey to its new berth Wednesday went more smoothly than Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette thought possible.
"We conjured up all the nightmares, and none of them came true," Burdette said. "It was about as perfect as it could be."
Patriots Point will remain closed for the rest of the week to reinstall the 60-foot pier section along with water, sewer and electrical lines that were cut beneath it. Burdette hopes to reopen the naval museum on Saturday.
Tours of the Laffey will be available in about a month after a gangway and exhibits are put back in place, Burdette said.
Patriots Point is planning a special ceremony to mark the Laffey's return in April, but plans have not been arranged.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or on Twitter at @warrenlancewise.