By Harriet McLeod
MOUNT PLEASANT, South Carolina (Reuters) - The Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, a popular tourist spot in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor, is facing the same challenge as other U.S. Navy ship museums: keeping retired, once-storied warships afloat.
Its World War Two destroyer, the USS Laffey, just had a nearly $13 million restoration. The almost 70-year-old World War Two aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, will need eventual repairs at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
The USS Clamagore, a 1945 submarine at a dock nearby, could roll over in the next hurricane without extensive work to shore up its hull. While a veterans' group tries to raise enough money to save the sub, museum officials are making plans to have it towed to sea and turned into an artificial reef.
"Every ship cannot be kept as a floating museum," said Robert "Mac" Burdette, executive director at Patriots Point, which as the country's oldest aircraft carrier museum draws 230,000 visitors a year. "I wish they could. The money's not there in the world anymore."
The nation's 48 Navy ship museums are trying to balance preserving history and sentiment with the expense of maintaining huge, aging warships, a delicate act complicated by the fact that most do not get funding from the U.S. Navy or other government entities.
The ships need maintenance that was once done daily by hundreds of sailors, and a few need significant restoration to stay afloat. With the country strapped by budget woes, those ships may have to be sunk if money cannot be found.
At Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, the 1892 USS Olympia, a relic of the Spanish-American War and the world's oldest steel-hulled ship still floating, needs up to $20 million worth of work, said museum marketing director Hope Corse.
The museum does not have the money and cannot raise it, so it is looking to transfer the Olympia to one of two interested groups out of state, she said.
That solution is not ideal. The ship has not been hauled out of the water since 1945, and towing it would be expensive and risky, said Jesse Lebovics, museum historic ships manager.
REPAIRS PRICEY, BUT APPRECIATED
Other museums have funded costly repairs through loans from state governments or a combination of ticket sales, donations, grants and events. The Navy does not help finance the ships it began donating to museums in 1948, museum officials said.
"They have to fund the fighting ships, the ones that are still there," Burdette said.
In June, the USS Texas, a 100-year-old World War One battleship near Houston, sprang a leak. "And it led to many more leaks," said Andy Smith, ship manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which operates the ship museum. "We took on a lot of water."
Repair and environmental cleanup cost $2 million, Smith said. With funds that include a $25 million state bond, the ship will now get major repairs, he said.
South Carolina's Patriots Point is a state agency but receives no taxpayer dollars toward its $9.5 million annual budget, Burdette said. The museum was able to restore the Laffey over the course of three years with help from a $9.2 million loan from the state.
"It's beautiful," said 92-year-old Wilbert Gauding of Ravenna, Ohio, during a recent visit to the ship.
An original crew member, Gauding said he was a machinist's mate second class aboard the Laffey on D-Day, June 6, 1944. "We escorted the boats across the (English) Channel," he said. "We did a lot of shelling of the pillboxes on the beach over there."
"If you don't bring this home to the next generation, they'll forget what his generation did for us - the sacrifice they made for our freedom," said Gauding's daughter, Pat Goodhart, 63.
On the nearby Yorktown, rust streaks the hull and bulkheads. Belowdecks where the public is not allowed, painted green Xs mark corroded deck metal that might not bear a person's weight. Most of the flight deck and a number of steel hull plates on the 888-foot (270-metre) carrier will eventually need to be replaced.
To those who might suggest sinking the old warships rather than paying for the repairs, Burdette answers that doing so with the Yorktown could cost as much as $60 million. "We have married her for better or worse for a lifetime," he said.
Having opted to focus on raising money for its centerpiece exhibit, Patriots Point hopes to find a buyer who would pay to sink the Cold War-era Clamagore within the next few years in order to create an artificial reef and relieve the museum of that cost burden.
The decision upset hundreds of Clamagore veterans, who have responded by raising about $30,000 toward the $3 million needed to save the submarine.
They are not optimistic about the likely success of their efforts.
"I don't think we're going to be able to come up with the bucks," said veteran George Bass, 86, of Salisbury, North Carolina, who served for nine years on the Clamagore. "It means everything to us. It would be just like losing a member of your family."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)