After more than 3 decades floating at a Northern California shipyard, the USS Tulare took one last voyage down the Pacific Coast, through the Panama and back up north along the Atlantic Ocean.
Thought it once was the largest and fastest attack cargo transport ship in the Navy fleet after its commission in 1956, this ship that once was a workhorse during the Vietnam War was long ago stripped of its major systems.
So the Tulare made its month-long final voyage hooked to a tow boat that pulled it last week into the Brownsville, Texas, shipyard operated by International Shipbreaking Limited, LLC, which had purchased it.
Work already has begun on the six-month process of dismantling the Tulare.
"Ships are one of the most recyclable large items made by man. Over 90 percent of the ship is recycled," said Robert Berry, vice president of International Shipbreaking.
Most of the USS Tulare will end up as scrap steel that will be shipped to steel mills which will melt the pieces into girders and other items.
Although the Tulare is named after Tulare County, it's imminent demise seemed to go largely unnoticed here until county Supervisor Allen Ishida announced Tuesday that he received an email about it the previous week.
"I didn't know we had a ship. It's probably been mothballed forever," he told the crowd attending the Board of Supervisors meeting.
More precisely, after the Tulare was decommissioned in 1980, it was moored in Suisun Bay, northeast of San Francisco. It remained there until December, when it was sent to a San Francisco-area shipyard to prepare for its trip to Brownsville, which began Dec. 30.
In the email, a former Tulare crew member from Illinois suggested the county contact International Shipbreaking to determine if some parts of the Tulare may be saved and shipped here, said Neil Pilegard, the county's Parks and Recreation manager.
News that the Tulare had just arrived in Brownsville surprised Terry Bergfalk of Porterville, who in 1979 spent five days on the ship during the last leg of its last voyage as a regular Navy vessel, transporting Army troops from Alameda to Hawaii.
At the time, she was president of the Tulare County Navy League and a contributing writer to Navy Times and Navy publications. Because the ship was named after Tulare County and she had ties to the Navy, Bergfalk said she was invited to go on the trip.
"I was the only woman on the ship," she said, noting that by that time, the years of wear on the ship were apparent, as was the fact it lacked much of the technology of newer Navy ships being built.
As if to punctuate the Tulare problems, an engine blew on the way to Hawaii, leaving the ship dead in the water for about 10 hours, Bergfalk said.
She attended the ship's decommissioning ceremony the following year and was given the bronze plaque Tulare County presented to the Navy when the ship was commissioned -†along with two flag stanchions from the Tulare that still sit on her fireplace.
Bergfalk later gave the plaque to the county and it is currently on display at the Tulare County Historical Museum at Mooney Grove Park.
The aging ship on its last voyage was a sharp contrast to how it began, the first of a new type of amphibious ship that could transport troops, tanks, trucks and other equipment for beach landings.
"This class of ships, I guess they developed out of World War II and all the amphibious landings that were carried out," said Ed Mersich, 67, of Elizabeth Colo.
He served as an electricians mate third-class on the Tulare from 1965 to 1968 and now runs a website for former Tulare crew members.
Navy historical records show the ship was originally built as a civilian cargo ship in 1953 but was obtained by the Navy and converted it for military use, which included installing 12 three-inch guns.
"Not all amphibious cargo ships were armed, but this one was armed," Mersich said.
Not that the Tulare used the guns much, as it was usually surrounded by ships with more firepower, he said.
The ship carried a compliment of two amphibious landing craft — boats that could be driven onto beaches to let out or receive troops and equipment — each ranging in length from 30 to 56 feet long.
Also known by crew members as the "Big T" and "Tu-Tu," the Tulare operated in the Pacific, transporting troops and equipment, particularly during the Vietnam War.
One thing that made the Tulare unique was that its system for distilling sea water into drinking water was so much better than distillation systems in most Navy ships that water rationing wasn't required.
And sometimes, the Tulare served during the Vietnam War as a sort of "floating hotel" where troops could bathe and do their laundry because it had so much available water, Mersich said.
"It was quite luxurious by naval standards."
It also was the first ship of its kind, which meant that other fast-attack cargo transports were designated "Tulare-class" ships.
As for how the Tulare acquired its name, that's not clear.
Navy historical records confirm the ship was named after Tulare County, and newspaper articles from the 1950s recount how Tulare County officials commissioned a bronze plaque that was installed on the ship.
"And amphibious cargo ships were named after counties -†U.S. counties," said Mersich, adding that he didn't know why Tulare County was picked. "This could have been pulled out of a hat, for all I know."
Local historians contacted said they also didn't know the story behind naming the ship, nor did a January 1956 Times-Delta article about local representatives attending the commissioning ceremony at the Bethlehem Pacific Coast Steel Corp. yard in San Francisco.
"She is the largest, fastest attack cargo ship in the fleet. She has the first helicopter platform ever installed on a cargo ship," the article stated, quoting Rear Adm. John R. Redman, commander of the 12th Naval District.
"To her officers and men, [the]Tulare will always be something very special. Long after they have left her, she will be a part of them," he continued.
Mersich said every former crew member he has spoken to has fond memories of the Tulare.
But as time went on, the Tulare was outmatched by other, newer ships and other ways to do its mission.
A lot more transport was done by large cargo aircraft as well as government-owned transport ships with civilian crews that were increasingly used to transport troops, tanks and supplies, Mersich said.
In July 1975, the Tulare became a training ship for the Naval Reserve Force. It operated out of San Francisco, until it was decommissioned in February 1980.
After that, it was moored in Suisun Bay as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet until it was determined to be obsolete and sold to be scrapped for $1.13 million.
"I feel real sad that it's going to scrap," Bergfalk said.
As for what memorabilia might be salvaged from the Tulare for museums here and other places where they may be displayed, Pilegard said there may not be much available.
"Other museums have picked through it," he said, noting even the ship's bell is long gone.
One of its twin, nine-ton, 50-caliber guns was removed from the ship in 2010 so it could be installed on the USS Hornet — now a floating museum -†in Alameda.
Pilegard said he's been in touch with the company taking the Tulare apart and "They're going to look through and see if anything's left."
Source: Visalia Times Delta. 12 February 2012