July 13, 2004

TO: Our friends and shipmates engaged in the “Save the USS GAGE APA 168 Project”

FROM: Jerry Jones, ET1, USS SLATER DE 766 Museum Ship volunteer crew member, Albany, NY

In April 2000, a salvage crew which included several volunteers from USS SLATER visited the James River Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustace, Virginia. MARAD and The Navy gave us permission to visit specific ships preserved in the “Reserve Fleet” for the purpose of salvage of parts for restoration of our own ex-navy museum ships. Among these ships was the USS GAGE APA 168. Our understanding at that time was that these ships were to be disposed of and scrapped or sunk. Our DE, The Slater, was in need of many items to assist in our restoration project goal of returning the ship to its WWII configuration and preserving it as a museum for future generations. Slater was built around the same time as Gage, decommissioned around the same time and put in the reserve fleet. But, unlike the Gage, Slater was given to the Greek Navy where she served as a training ship for some forty years. DE’s were built in a big hurry and had a life expectancy of something like six months in 1944 and were considered expendable, again, probably not unlike the Gage. That both ships have survived for sixty years required miracles in series! 

Russ Padden visited the Slater last week and I had the pleasure of swapping some “sea Stories” with him. He made me aware of the project to save the Gage and directed me to the website. I was not previously aware of what was going on and, I guess, had assumed that Gage was already gone. I am most pleased to find that Gage is not only still there, but has earned an eleventh hour reprieve from the SINKX list! 

I took the pictures during that salvage trip. A warm rush to me was that my old ship the USS MISSISSINEWA AO 144, was there. Although we were not allowed to board her, I could see her clearly from the bow of the Gage. 

The day begins when you meet the diesel work boat at 0630 at the MARAD pier at Fort Eustice. It’s about a half hour ride out to the anchored ships tied up in nests of 5 to 15 ships each, about 100 ships total. Our first day (of three) was dead calm with a zero visibility fog. Our very first sight of the ships was when they slowly materialized out of the fog dead ahead – a truly chilling sight to a helmsman! They loomed in the mist like ghost ships. The work boat dropped us off at the ladder of the end ship in the nest which is a floating drydock. After reading the FBI WARNING, you climb an impressively long (and High) ladder to the top deck of the drydock and make your way over maybe 5 ships to get to the USS GAGE which is in the center of the nest. Your first impression is that the Gage is an absolute derelict! 

It is easily the rustiest ship in the nest. It looks like the ships on either side (the General Vandenburg and the American Ranger) must surely be the only thing holding her up! Her guns are gone, her boats are long gone and there is hardly a square inch of recognizable paint anywhere topside. But her gun tubs and her masts and booms and winches are still there. Everything is rusty but when you look closely, it seems to be just surface rust, more like a protective patina, not layers of scale thinning the structural integrity of the steel. 

It slowly dawned on me that she is in better under lying condition than the Slater which is battered and dented between frames everywhere, with not a flat plate to be found on deck or in the hull! The ready ammo racks in her 40 MM tubs are pristine. A little wire brushing, some primer and a couple of coats of Navy grey and this ship could really begin to look like something. Below decks it is dark, of course, and dead silent. In the troop compartments, the racks are still rigged waiting to be laced with a canvas bottom. The lockers are there (mostly). The doors and hatches work, the ladders and rails are there. The heads are mostly intact complete with the longest troughs I ever saw. The grills in the galley were cosmolined long ago, along with the ovens and chow lines and the scullery, most of it looks like a good cleaning, polishing and/or painting would bring it right back to 1945. 

Being on board in the total dark and silence was almost a spiritual experience for me, especially below in the troop berthing compartments where too many of the soldiers and marines spent their last days. The pictures can’t begin to capture it, the camera flash breaks the spell for an instant and then you’re back with the spirits and your dim flashlight. I cannot begin to really describe the experience of being there. . . .

Most of the easily removable and lightweight items like intercoms, sound powered phones and their jacks, clock mounts, light fixtures and shades were already gone when we got there. We took some heavier items such as electrical fuse panels, bunk (rack) frames, personnel lockers and fans. Galley steam kettles were found on a nearby LST along with wire and whip antennas and insulators. After 3 or 4 hours spent exploring and salvaging items, we had to carry them topside to the main deck on the bow and rig and lower them to the workboat when it came back. Then we had to hurry over the decks of the 5 adjacent ships to the drydock and down the accommodation ladder to the workboat for the ride back to the beach. That pretty much explains the pictures.

Our experience with restoring the Slater to her 1945 condition has taken about 6 years and 150,000 volunteer man hours. Visit our webpage WWW.USSSLATER.ORG to see the result. There are some comparable circumstances surrounding the Gage and the Slater. There were some 565 Destroyer Escorts built, but Slater is the last DE afloat in the US. All the others became razor blades or Toyotas or were used as target ships except for a very few still in foreign navies. The Slater was almost too far gone to save when we got her. Thousands of DESA (Destroyer Escort Sailors Association) members bought memberships, held raffles and bake sales. 

A few hundred volunteers lucky enough to live within commuting distance of Albany have chipped, painted, welded, fabricated, overhauled and refurbished the ship until she is now presentable and the same guys and gals give tours to the public, host overnights for scout troops and sea scouts and perhaps most rewarding of all, host ship reunions, memorial services and celebrations and funerals. Many of our volunteers are in their 70s and 80s, and many come from California, Michigan, Illinois, Texas and other states to work on the ship for a week at a time. Our motto is “Hard Work, Long Hours and NO Pay – The hardest job you’ll ever love” I don’t know how we did it, but we had to, I don’t know how you are going to do it, but YOU HAVE TO. . . . Save the USS Gage, you have at least as much to work with as we did. Good luck, shipmates, Jerry Jones K2AYM@NYCAP.RR.COM
Picture below from 2004-from another source-compare it to links 14 and 15 in the Ghost Fleet section...: