Group wants to save WWII transport ship in Ghost Fleet

Danny Harris, an electrician with the James River Reserve Fleet, looks around the boiler room of the Gage, an attack transport ship that took Marines across the Pacific and landed them on Okinawa during World War II.

Danny Harris, an electrician with the James River Reserve Fleet, looks around the boiler room of the Gage, an attack transport ship that took Marines across the Pacific and landed them on Okinawa during World War II. 

Photos by Bill Tiernan / The Virginian-Pilot.

Source: http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/story.cfm?story=58096&ran=96017

By PAUL CLANCY, The Virginian-Pilot
August 8, 2003

ON THE JAMES RIVER -- The exposed parts of its deck are pumpkin-colored by rust, its hull a flaking mess. Its gun turrets are empty tubs. Spiders ride webs like trampoline gymnasts.

This is an undignified state for a one-time Navy ship that took American troops into combat in the Pacific during World War II, for the last of a breed of famous workhorses.

But down steep stairways, in the belly of the attack transport Gage, there are no signs of leaks. The ship's engine room, its berthing spaces, its machine shop, its boilers -- seem almost pristine.

The Gage, named for a county in Nebraska, landed Marines and other troops on Okinawa, the last of the Pacific islands to fall before the Japanese surrender.

After the war, it was decommissioned in Norfolk and sent to the ``Ghost Fleet'' on the river. And never called on again. Because it was essentially ignored for more than half a century, the Gage is considered the last authentic member of its class.

But sometime next year -- the date hasn't been set -- the Gage is expected to be towed into the Atlantic, 50 miles or more offshore, where some Navy vessel will lie in wait.

On command, the ``live-fire training exercise'' is to blast the tough old survivor and send it to its final resting place 6,000 feet or more below.

But maybe not.

A group of veterans and history buffs has begun a petition drive and lobbying campaign to save the Gage and turn it into a floating museum on the unsung but crucial vessels that helped win the war in the Pacific.

``Attention all hands!'' cries the group's Web site. ``General Quarters! This is not a drill!''

The group is the APA Historical Preservation Project, dedicated to saving as many as possible of the ``auxiliary fleet, personal complement, attack force'' ships that were built in huge numbers in Portland, Ore., near the end of the war.

These APAs were the Navy versions of the famed Victory Ships, the merchant vessels that risked sinking by enemy submarines to carry troops and supplies overseas. The APAs bristled with guns. Their payload was Marines.

Of 230 built, the Gage is the last originally configured attack transport, the group says. A few others still exist, but they've been significantly modified.

The 455-foot Gage, capable of carrying more than 500 crewmen, 1,500 troops and 2,900 tons of cargo, was launched in October 1944.

Beginning April 1, Easter Sunday, 1945, it landed 6th Division Marines on Okinawa.

The 29-year-old Lt. Ernest Rhodes was in charge of one of the landing craft that hit the beach that morning. Rhodes, 88, who later taught theater history at Old Dominion University, remembers the sloping beach, the airfield on his left, small town on his right. Behind, boats carrying Marines and gear were lined up in waves.

The landing was unopposed, but the significance of the battle that won the island lives in his thoughts.

``That was the greatest moment in my life,'' he says. ``I was doing something of value for my country.''

The skipper of the Gage, then-Cmdr. Leroy Alexanderson, took command when the ship went into service at Astoria, Ore. Alexanderson, 93, who later became commodore of the passenger ship United States, lives in Hampton.

He remembers lecturing his crew: ``You came here for one purpose -- to get those troops safely ashore.'' And they did.

After the war, the Gage took part in the ``magic carpet'' rides that brought troops home. It came straight to Norfolk and then, after decommissioning in February 1947, was placed in the ``Ghost Fleet,'' now officially known as the James River Reserve Fleet. There it has remained, essentially untouched.

That's the remarkable thing about the Gage, says writer Peter Stoudt, one of the APA organizers. Because little was done to change it, ``this thing is an archaeological dig.'' The group wants the museum's theme to be ``forever 1945.''

Stoudt hopes it can be adopted by a group in Hampton Roads, where there is a significant number of amphibious sailors or Portland, where the Gage was built.

Tom Gonzalez began the drive to save the Gage. The native Long Islander served on the Rockbridge, an APA that was based in Norfolk, during the Cuban missile crisis. That ship was cut up for scrap and Gonzalez, now a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity on the Eastern Shore -- and a docent on the battleship Wisconsin -- decided a delivery wagon, as well as a battle wagon, ought to be honored.

The battleships might have ``softened up'' the Pacific islands prior to the invasions, Gonzalez says, ``But if you didn't put the Marines on the beach, they would still be Japanese islands today.''

Despite its years, the Gage's hull is in better condition than many of the other ships in the James River fleet, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees them.

Marine surveyor Alyn Fife, who looked at the Gage, says it was in ``pretty sad shape'' and estimated it would cost $10 million to restore. Stoudt believes that with volunteer help, the bill should be half that.

Either way, it's a lot of money, but groups in San Francisco, Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., have restored World War II-era merchant ships and now take passengers on local voyages.

Norfolk already has its battleship, and a major fund-raising campaign on its behalf is under way.

Whether or not the area could take on a restoration project for another World War II icon is a question that the Gage group will have to answer.

First, a stay of execution must be granted.

The Navy has a regular program of sinking old ships to train crews and test weapons. According to a spokeswoman, the Navy needs particular-size targets for specific weapons. Each year, one or more candidates for ``sinkex'' are chosen from inactive fleets around the country.

Next year will be the Gage's turn -- unless the Navy and the Maritime Administration can be persuaded to find a new target while petitioners develop their plan for saving the ship.

For now, on a morning that begins with light rain, the Gage waits between two other ships, the American Ranger, which was recently sold for scrap, and the Vandenburg, a candidate for a diving reef.

Down in the Gage's engine room, doors to the big boilers are ajar. Flashlights play over bricks inside that absorbed the heat but did not keep the engineers who worked them from suffering in extreme heat.

The berthing space has row after row of steel bunks with mattress springs. The head, with toilets and sinks and showers, is free of graffiti, surely because of gallons of paint.

But there are stories that no amount of paint could erase from the memories of many who were carried by the Gage.

Mike Furby, a Maritime Administration electrician, has never been to sea, but he feels the history of the ships wherever he goes among the ghosts of the fleet.

``I come out here and go 'round the world,'' he says. ``I come out here and get a little history every day.''

Reach Paul Clancy at paul.clancy@pilotonline.com or 446-2627.

The attack transport Gage, right, landed Marines and other troops on Okinawa.

After the war, it was decommissioned in Norfolk and sent to the Ghost Fleet on the James River.