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Editorial: Saving the Clamagore would be fitting tribute to Charleston area's naval past

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The submarine Clamagore is docked near the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Mount Pleasant. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s cheaper to save it than to sink it. That’s the short argument for preserving the Cold War-era submarine Clamagore as a museum ship rather sinking it off the coast as a fishing reef.

And now that Gov. Henry McMaster has vetoed $2.7 million for turning the Patriots Point exhibit into an artificial reef, saving the vessel, the last of its kind and a National Historic Landmark, is once again an alternative Patriots Point should consider.

Former submariner Tom Lufkin, who chairs the USS Clamagore Restoration and Maintenance Association, said the Guppy III diesel-electric sub can be hauled out, cleaned up, repaired and its hull repainted for about $1 million.

“First, we want to prevent it from being reefed,” he said.

With the governor’s veto, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the future of the 322-foot vessel, which has had little to no maintenance below the waterline since it arrived in 1981, is still in limbo.

Under executive director Mac Burdette, Patriots Point has been trying to get rid of the sub for several years. But Mr. Burdette will retire at the end of the month and be replaced by Larry Murray, an Army veteran in a leadership position at the DMV who could and should change tacks when he takes the helm.

At the same time, Mr. Lufkin’s group is suing Patriots Point, in part for failing to maintain the Clamagore as required by the Navy when it agreed to donate the sub to the naval and maritime museum. The lawsuit also seeks to halt the sub’s scuttling.

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In the longer term, Mr. Lufkin would like to see the Clamagore exhibited on land like the World War II submarine Drum in Mobile, Alabama. That would cost considerably more but, once out of the water, Mr. Lufkin said his group could handle the maintenance free of charge, especially if it were allowed to salvage the batteries, which are worth at least $500,000, and the lead ballast, worth about $140,000.

The Clamagore, which patrolled the East Coast from 1945 to 1975, is indeed one of a kind. It was propelled by its diesel engines when on the surface, but ran almost silently on its batteries when submerged.

About 3,000 former submariners live in the Charleston area, according to Mr. Lufkin, and keeping the Clamagore on display here would be a fitting tribute to the area’s naval past when submarines were based and overhauled here.

“It could be a big tourist draw,” Mr. Lufkin said, adding that most of the maintenance that needs to be done is cosmetic. The 1 ½-inch-thick steel pressure hull remains solid, he said.

Patriots Point’s latest estimate for restoring the sub and putting it back on display next to the Yorktown was $9.35 million. But Mr. Lufkin said $1 million would cover a bare-bones rehab, something that would have to be repeated about once every 10 years.

Submarines hold a unique fascination, and the Clamagore represents an important evolution in undersea warfare. As such, Mr. Murray and his board of directors should reassess the impetus to get rid of the boat. At a minimum, Patriots Point should strive to settle the lawsuit and welcome any input from Mr. Lufkin’s group on ways to preserve the vessel. After all, that’s part of Patriots Point’s core mission as a maritime museum.

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