Suisun Bay's Famous Ghost Fleet About to Vanish

Paint chips from the decaying ships were flaking off, causing a hazard to fish and wildlife, according to environmental groups that sued the government over the ships' pollution.

For decades, the dozens of hulking retired military ships bobbing in the Suisun Bay marked one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most unusual and unexpected sights. Its official name was the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, created by the U.S. Maritime Administration following World War II to serve as potential backups for national defense. To locals, it was simply the Mothball Fleet or The Ghost Fleet.

"The scale of it was quite impressive," said Ronn Patterson, who used to take tours to see the fleet aboard his Dolphin Charter cruises. "Just the number of ships was quite impressive."

At its high point, nearly 100 ships floated off the Benicia shoreline -- like massive museum pieces of military history. Its ranks included the tugboat Hoga, which raced to save soldiers and burning ships in the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was the USS Iowa, a WWII warrior that once carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet once held nearly 100 retired military and support vessels.

"Every ship was like a little textbook of history," Patterson said.

But following an environmental lawsuit in 2007, this once massive fleet has become a ghost itself. Only three of the original ships remain -- and soon they will be gone too.

"We discovered based on a government study, that vessels were putting about 20 tons of pollution into the bay," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of BayKeeper which was among the environmental groups that sued the government over the ships' pollution.

Choksi-Chugh said paint chips from the decaying ships were flaking off into the Suisun Bay causing a hazard to fish and wildlife. As a result of the suit, Choksi-Chugh said the government began a program to regularly clean the ships. Even more significantly, it began removing the ships from Suisun Bay one by one -- towing them to industrial yards at nearby Mare Island and Brownsville, Texas, for scrapping.

"The Ghost Fleet of Suisuin Bay was pretty much an iconic tourist attraction," said Choksi-Chugh during a recent boat trip to visit the remaining ships. "It's too bad they were heavily polluting our San Francisco Bay."

Some of the ships survived to tell their tale. The Hoga was put on display at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum. The USS Iowa became a floating museum at the Pacific Battleship Center in San Pedro, California. But most were unceremoniously dismantled and scrapped.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Ronn Patterson of Dolphin Charters looks through his notes he used to use in tours of the Ghost Fleet.

"I miss being able to talk about them because they were quite interesting," said Patterson, who curtailed trips to the fleet when their numbers dropped to a mere smattering.

On a recent day, Navy veteran Russ Munn leaned against the railing of the public marina in Martinez, craning to see the remaining ships floating off in the distance. He described the flotilla of retired vessels as sacred grounds for his fellow veterans.

"With my binoculars I could see the ships," Munn said. "I saw a couple of the same kind of ships I served aboard in the 1950s."

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
The Cape Breton, Cape Blanco and Cape Borda are scheduled to be removed from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet by the end of the coming year.

The last remaining Ghost Fleet ships include the Cape Breton, the Cape Blanco and the Cape Borda. They were surrounded by a scattering of ships still active as reserve vessels. Coksi-Chugh said the trio of old ships was set to be removed by the end of the coming year, bringing down the curtain on this unusual spectacle of maritime past.

"That's the end of the Ghost Fleet," she said.

Inside his tour boat in the Berkeley Marina, Patterson leafed through a folder filled with stories of many of the Ghost Fleet ships, which he used to read during his tours of the fleet. He closed the binder of papers and drifted off with the memory.

"There were always some amazing ships," Patterson said. "And some that may not have been amazing but were certainly interesting."

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