When they talk about the fleet at Patriots Point, veterans from different conflicts and different warships share one refrain: "They might seem like just pieces of metal to you ..."
But to them, they explain, those pieces of metal were homes where they learned camaraderie, heroism, loss. Where they slept in tiny bunks above torpedoes or saw friends torn apart in enemy onslaught. Where they now give tours to curious Boy Scouts, or gather onboard to paint in hopes of keeping their stories alive — in metal.
This week, the Patriots Point Development Authority again will discuss the attraction's future and whether it can sustain all four of its vessels with millions of dollars in repairs looming and no payment strategy in place. At the previous meeting, Chairman John
Hagerty suggested the authority focus on maintaining only the aircraft carrier Yorktown and possibly the submarine Clamagore if it can be moved to land. That leaves in limbo the Coast Guard cutter Ingham and the destroyer Laffey.
Patriots Point officials said a Coast Guard group in Florida has expressed interest in taking custody of the Ingham.
But the Laffey, which sprang more than 100 leaks in recent months, will sink by next spring and maybe sooner if Charleston Harbor starts churning this hurricane season.
Though the ships' needs seem sudden, even desperate, Patriots Point received warnings in annual inspections by the U.S. Navy. The most recent report, received in October, found the authority did not perform necessary tests to assess the integrity of the hulls of the Laffey and the Clamagore. It also said deterioration on portions of the Clamagore and the Yorktown "must be made a priority" until each can move to dry dock for repairs.
"It is important that realistic cost estimates be developed to support fundraising efforts," the inspection letter said.
Months ago, Laffey Association President Sonny Walker spoke hopefully about saving the destroyer known from World War II as "The Ship That Would Not Die."
When he first learned about the ship's holes, the 66-year-old Walker drove from his Maryland home straight to Mount Pleasant to meet former shipmates. They likened the trip to visiting an ailing mother.
Returning home, the men collected more than $33,000 to put toward repairs and started doing their own research, even tracking down the company that built the Laffey decades ago.
Fast-forward to today, and Walker's three primary contacts at Patriots Point — Executive Director Hugh Tant III, Media and Public Relations Manager Charlie Hall Jr. and Development Director Doug Bostick — no longer work at the attraction. Walker said his attempts to contact other officials have failed, and he learned from a news report that the Laffey might be destined to become an artificial reef.
"I'm telling people, 'Don't send money now,' because we don't know where it's going," he said last week.
The association shifted its focus to making sure its members can prepare for Laffey's final voyage and charter boats in time to watch the ship go down.
Walker said he once sat next to a stranger inside the Yorktown's theater to watch a film chronicling the Laffey during World War II. Based on the position where the kamikaze plane struck during one clip, the man realized he was watching his brother die on the screen. Walker held the man's hand until the footage ended.
Another day onboard the Laffey, a veteran spoke of how his shipmate's skin burned off into his own hands during a Japanese attack. The man's daughter sobbed beside him as she confided to Walker, "This is the first time Daddy ever said anything about the war."
Reflecting on those sobering memories, Walker said, "This is what we'll miss."
Walker served on the destroyer from 1960 to 1963. He left Baltimore as a teenager to see the world from that ship and now travels to Mount Pleasant four times a year for "work parties" that bring generations of Laffey servicemen together to repair and paint and claim their old bunks for a few nights.
Walker said the work-party veterans hit a few soft spots but never saw the real trouble lying below the water line.
Walt Harrington, an 81-year-old Summerton resident, went to his first work party 25 years ago. Back then he was still living in upstate New York, and he said part of the reason he retired to rural South Carolina was that he no longer would have to drive 15 hours to see his ship.
Harrington wore the same uniform he donned during the Korean War when he and his wife married on the Laffey's fantail 10 years ago. The couple talked about having their ashes cast into the ocean from the same spot after they die. Now, he said, they'll consider other arrangements.
Referring to his own pontoon boat that he named Laffey III, Harrington said, "We'll always have one in South Carolina anyway."
'Drop in the bucket'
Retired U.S. Navy senior chief petty officer Sid Busch makes a 50-mile roundtrip drive from his home in Goose Creek to volunteer at Patriots Point on his days off from delivering medical supplies.
As he walked toward the submarine Clamagore last week wearing a Navy jumpsuit, a Marine Corps veteran told him, "Welcome home, Sid."
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, the 63-year-old Busch landed in Charleston almost 30 years ago by assignment and remained by request. He spent 26 years in the Navy, measured out in stints onboard a dozen submarines.
From 1969 to 1972, he operated sonar inside the Clamagore, monitoring Soviet ships. He remembers wedging between cables and lockers at night to keep from toppling onto the floor beside torpedoes, eating the most perfect fried chicken prepared by the ship's cook and wearing the same pair of dungarees so long that "they could walk on their own."
Of the nine submarines classified as a Guppy III, every one but the Clamagore has been scrapped.
"She's the last of her kind," Busch said, standing on the pier alongside the ship. "Once she's gone, that's it."
Busch said the Clamagore, like the Laffey, boasts an active association that finds itself helpless in the wake of a multimillion-dollar need.
"It's a drop in the bucket," he said. "Thirty-three thousand dollars is a lot of money for an organization, but to fix a ship ..."
Busch, who also runs marathons in honor of young men killed in combat, began volunteering at Patriots Point four years ago. Another volunteer had overheard him describing life onboard the Clamagore to his nephew and suggested he share those stories with other visitors.
But with so much uncertainty surrounding the fleet, Busch said recently, "If they take the Clamagore, I'm not sure I would come back here."