Sea Transportation: The Ghost Fleet Fades Away


July 21, 2007: Another relic of World War II is fading away. The reserve fleet of support and war ships maintained for the U.S. Navy since World War II, are down to about 200 ships, and those may all be gone within a decade.

In 1946, the U.S. established the National Defense Reserve Fleet. This was a number of locations around the country, usually in sheltered waters, up a river, where relatively new ships (mostly cargo and tankers, but including warships as well) could be tied up, and kept in readiness for a national emergency. By 1950, there were 2,227 ships in storage. Each location had a crew of trained men to keep the ships in working order. The engines were turned on periodically, and the electrical systems checked as well. During the Korean war, 540 ships were activated. During Vietnam, 172 were activated. During the 1991 Gulf war, 79 ships were activated. Hundreds were activated for other emergencies, like in 1956, when the Suez canal was closed by war, and more shipping was needed. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nine ships were activated.

But now age is catching up with most of the ships, which are not worth the expense of keeping them ready for activation. It's cheaper and more effective to just charter commercial ships. Only 44 ships of recent vintage, especially 26 "roll on/roll off" ones, are kept in readiness for immediate use. The great "Ghost Fleet" was an artifact of World War II, when thousands of new ships were built in a few years. When the war ended, naval and merchant fleets could not absorb them all. Rather than dismantle so many nearly new ships, the "Mothball Fleet" was created. Eventually these unused ships grew old, and no longer useful. The warships were gone within a few decades after the war. But many of the cargo ships, including some added after the war, lingered on until the end of the century. But now, the Ghost Fleet is rapidly fading into memory.


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