The Ghost Fleet of Suisun Bay

On a train from Portland to Oakland last week, my husband and I were startled to pass the rotting carcasses of dozens of battleships, moored together in clusters in a still, reedy bay north of San Francisco.

Turns out, our Navy stockpiles warships the same way we stockpile nuclear weapons. These boats were, originally, meant to be waiting in reserve, ready to go fight when needed. At the peak, there were 400 of them in Suisun Bay. But that was a long time ago. Today, the ships rusted hulks that leech heavy metals and other contaminants into the surrounding water. Their numbers have been shrinking in the last few years as ships were moved and dismantled for recycling. Fewer than 55 remain today. By 2017, they should all be gone.

In 2011, photographer Scott Haefner published a series of photos taken over the course of two years as he and two other photographers managed to slip past the ships' security detail and document the ruins, inside and out. At his site, you can see the photos (obviously much better than mine, above) and read the story of how the shots were taken (it involves reconnaissance missions and the purchase of an inflatable raft — not to mention whole weekends spent living aboard the ghost ships). The results are fantastic.

Thanks to Graham Coop for the link to Scott Haefner's photos!


    1. For the leg from Portland to Oakland, a room. It was overnight – 2:00 pm to about 9:00 am. Room comes with all your food covered + a free wine and cheese tasting + access to the only car on the train with wifi + a movie theater (seriously … though I wasn’t actually interested in the movies they were showing). 

      1.  I live in Oakland and go to Seattle often. I’ve dreamed of taking the train but the fact that they basically take 24 hours to make the trip with no Internet access and cost almost as much as the plane means that I just do the 1.5 hour flight instead.

        Do you find it is worth it over just flying for any particular reason?

        1. My husband and I were taking a vacation and internet-free train travel was basically a part of that. We flew into Seattle, spent a day there, took the train to Portland, spent a couple days there, took the train to San Francisco, couple days there, and then took the train to LA. It was lovely, relaxing, with great scenery, and not an experience I could have had if we’d flown. 

  1. I live local to there and drive by all the time.  We’ve always called it the “Mothball Fleet”.  Thanks for linking to the photos.

    1.  Vallejo native here, though I haven’t lived there since the 70’s. It is indeed “the mothball fleet”.

  2. There are no battleships among the 55 ships left in Suisun Bay. Most are transport vessels. The USS Iowa was there from 2001-2011, she is now open as a museum in Los Angeles.

    1.  When the Glomar Explorer was still there, the Marines used to hold boarding exercises off of her – gunships circling and Marines rappelling out of helicopters, quite the show. Once, a helicopter had a mechanical and had to set down in the empty lot right next to my work. Went out and talked to the guys until they got it fixed and airborne again.

    2. We used to sail past the Glomar Explorer when it (she) was homeported in Los Angeles Harbor (or San Pedro, it all sort of blends together into one huge maritime complex). Right by where the two bridges (one is a drawbridge, maybe both). There used to be a building there that turned out to be the hangar for the Spruce Goose when it was still shrouded in mystery and intrigue… ooooooooh.

    3. I’ve heard from fellow merchant mariners that the Glomar Explorer is contaminated by radiation from the K-129.  

  3. Does anybody know how often ‘mothballing’ is a reversible condition(at least temporarily) vs. how often it is cheaper and/or less risky to the decision-maker than scrapping; but effectively the end of the line?

    1. It all depends on when wars happen, and there’s no real way to predict that.  For example, a lot of ships mothballed after WW2 were successfully reactivated for use in Korea five years later.  Ships mothballed after Vietnam, not so much.
      Aside from active use and scrapping, mothballed ships can be activated for other uses, like training.  Some are donated and become museums.  And a bunch of them were towed out to the Pacific and nuked, back when we did atmospheric testing.

    2. The two mothballed ships I’ve got closest to were the landing ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid when they were moored in Portsmouth Harbour and I used to sail around there. Intrepid had been briefly mothballed in the 70s,  then brought back into service to allow Fearless to be refitted. It was supposed to be temporary, but then the Falklands War happened and both ships ended up staying active until the early 90s, then Fearless kept going for another 10 years with Intrepid being cannibalised for spare parts (by this point Fearless was the Royal Navy’s last steamship).

    3.  USS Iowa, for instance, was mothballed after WWII, then successively recommissioned for and decommissioned between the Korean War, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.  She had regular as well as nuclear-tipped Tomohawks and depleted uranium rounds in her Phalanx gatling guns, as well as the big-ass 16 inch guns.  All the battleships were decomissioned after Desert Storm (too expensive to maintain and run) and have all been distributed to various maritime museums.  USS Iowa’s being nicely restored and is currently moored and open as a museum in San Pedro with excellent tours available (ours was given by a veteran who’d served aboard her).

  4. I grew up in Martinez, on the southern shore of the Mothball Fleet (as, indeed, we always called it). As a teenager in the 1970s, I ventured out there with a friend who had a small sailboat. Going in and out of the canyons of ships exposed us to wild fluctuations of wind, from flat to gusting. It was amazing. But even then we lamented how much smaller the fleet was than when we were kids in the 1960s — when it was truly massive, like a scene from a war movie.

      1.  That’s the Stennis.  The “7” on the deck is visible but the “4” isn’t.  Turn the direction in Google so that North is oriented to the right and the “74” on both the Island and on the deck is now visible, albeit with a forklift or something parked on it.

        I suspect that for aesthetics, someone edited out the forklift on the regular-north-up image, and forgot to put the “4” back.  The slight edge where the horizontal sticks out to the right is visible if one zooms in all of the way.  Or there was something parked there that we’re not supposed to see and it was edited out, though I would expect they’d move things sensitive around during hours when they wouldn’t or couldn’t be seen.

  5. It was cool reading the Twitter-feed travelogue of your train trip, Maggie!
    * * *
    In the Harry Harrison novel Make Room, Make Room! — later adapted as Soylent Green — mothballed ships are moored around Manhattan to house tens of thousands of refugees. There were probably a lot more surplus vessels around in the mid 60s, when the book was written.

  6. Please do not use URL shorteners again, and most specially, please do not mask a PDF with a shortener.

  7. ‘The Killer Elite’  is a 1975 film directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring James Caan and Robert Duvall (and has a different plot than a 2011 film with a similar title).

    It’s not a classic Peckinpah production, and the story mostly drags, but it does wrap up with a rousing action set-piece, as gangs of Ninjas join in battle on the old warships parked in Suisun Bay. Worth a glance if you like this kinda thing…

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