Peace Time: Razorback Rules

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May 24, 2021: A maritime museum in the U.S. (Arkansas) has found a novel way to raise money to maintain its main exhibit, the Razorback, a former U.S. Navy diesel-electric submarine that entered service in 1944. The museum offers sleepovers on the sub. This costs $40 per person and all those participating must be at least five years old and physically capable of climbing up and down the internal ladders that get you down to the refurbished crew berthing (living) area. Groups of at least ten and up to 35 are permitted. One adult is required for every five younger (under 18) guests. The submarine sleepovers have proved popular in Arkansas and beyond. The museum also includes one of the tugboats that survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and participated in the rescue efforts during and after the attack. Other museum exhibits include artifacts from former warships (a battleship and nuclear-powered cruiser) named after Arkansas. The museum is a rare inland museum ship facility, located on the Arkansas River, a 2,300 kilometers long tributary to the Mississippi River.

The Razorback was acquired by the Arkansas museum a year before the museum opened in 2005. For a sixty-year-old ship, the Razorback was in good shape and was easy to turn into a museum ship. That was because the Razorback was in service for 57 years and acquired by the museum soon after it finally retired. Razorback lasted for so long because it was one of the most modern World War II designs, served for only 17 months during World War II, and was present in Tokyo Bay when Japan signed the surrender document. A few months later Razorback was placed in active reserve, in a sheltered anchorage with other reserve ships and maintained so that it could quickly return to service. That it did in 1954 during the post-Korean War (1950-53) Cold War military expansion. Before returning to service Razorback underwent a major upgrade that increased her displacement 20 percent to 1,800 tons and added a lot of new equipment. Before retiring in 1970, the Razorback served off Vietnam and throughout the Pacific. Retirement was a formality so that Razorback could be transferred to Turkey, now a NATO ally and in need of modern warships to confront the Soviet Union. Turkey retired Razorback, now called the Muratreis in 2001 and made it available to maritime museums. The Arkansas naval museum was searching for an affordable World War II era ship and the former Razorback became the main attraction of the museum when it opened in 2005. The Turks had taken good care of the Razorback and it was one of those rare World War II era museum ships that still had a lot of original components, including the living spaces for a crew of 80. The crew quarters did not require a lot of work to reach modern accommodation standards for civilians.

While everything worked out for the Razorback, there is a growing crisis in dealing with the escalating cost of maintaining old warships as museums and tourist attractions. Most of these vessels are in the water and literally rusting away. The Razorback underwent periodic shipyard maintenance until 2001 and was in much better shape than other World War II museum ships. Many of these are now in need of major refurbishment, which can cost over $100 million for a carrier or battleship. Even smaller ships like cruisers, destroyers, and submarines can require over $20 million to put back into shape to just sit in the water, receive visitors, and not sink or fall apart the next time a major storm hits. Most of the largest of these museum ships are American, largely because the U.S. has had the largest fleet in the world for nearly a century.

The end of World War II and the Cold War put a lot of warships out of work. Most were broken up for scrap or sunk using weapons as a form of training. But increasingly over the years many were donated by the U.S. Navy for use as museum ships. Most of these were smaller ships, like PT Boats or patrol boats. A small seaside town could afford to maintain these small craft with local volunteers and some cash donations. But many cities sought to obtain large ships. This led to five aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) and ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) becoming impressive and very expensive to maintain museum ships. The Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor during the infamous 1941 Japanese sneak attack and a museum and memorial built around the largely submerged vessel. The other carriers and battleships are tied up at a pier and visitors allowed to view many parts of the ship.

There are also over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines serving as museum ships. More are on the way if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. By 2010 nearly all World War II museum ships were due for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive.

More recent retired ships are even more expensive. In 2009 the U.S. Navy retired its last non-nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The navy offered the ship to any government or non-profit organization that wanted to maintain it as a museum ship. The navy waited in vain until 2017 before putting the Kennedy on the list of large retired ships to be scrapped (dismantled). Entering service in 1968, the Kennedy is 321 meters (1,052 feet) long and displaces 82,000 tons. It would have been the largest museum ship ever. There was much enthusiasm in Boston for taking the carrier, named after a native son, as a museum ship. The big problem, for whoever takes the ship, is money. That's lots of money, as in hundreds of millions to outfit the ship as a museum and maintain it. Potential takers for the Kennedy did the math and found that it was just too expensive.

The navy has long been willing to donate old ships to groups that were willing to maintain the retired vessels as museum ships. But the navy attaches some very expensive strings. That is, the navy expects the ship to be kept in decent shape. This is a problem with many old metal ships, as they rust. And eventually they rust so much that the hull is breached and ultimately will collapse. The navy has not yet repossessed any museum ships but a growing number of these ships are deteriorating. Refurbishment is so expensive that some sponsoring groups are considering letting the navy have the ship back.

For example, the World War II era Essex class carrier USS Intrepid, in New York City, returned to its display berth in 2009, after a two-year refurbishment costing $120 million. The entire hull was examined, in dry dock, for decay and over a hundred square meters (nearly a thousand square feet) of hull had to be replaced. A sister ship of the Intrepid, the Yorktown, required a similar refurbishment. Since 1975, the Yorktown has been on display in Charleston, South Carolina, with several other museum ships. The Yorktown, which entered service four months before the Intrepid, needed the same kind of work. The navy insisted on it, with the alternatives being sending the ship to the breakers or a lawsuit. The naval museum in South Carolina was in a difficult situation, as $120 million is hard to find, even when the economy (and wealthy donors) is doing well. The big donors are much harder to find these days. For the Yorktown, the work got done in stages and is still underway, surviving from one stage of required refurbishment to another.

Another popular option is to use old ships for target practice. Most of the 30 decommissioned Spruance class destroyers were used for target practice. Some old warships are sunk closer to the shore, to provide reefs for fish and scuba divers. Running a SINKEX (sinking exercise) enables the navy to test some theories on how vulnerable, or invulnerable, modern warships are. But environmentalists oppose these two methods as well because it puts toxic materials into the ocean.

Going to the breakers is now seen as viable because of more efficient breaking techniques and higher prices for recycled metals. For the moment anyway.

 


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