The young Marine in the black T-shirt, camo pants and brimmed cap settled his backpack on the deck of a 41-foot boat in the James River off Fort Eustis. He wore black mirrored sunglasses like a mask.
He declined to give his name, only his rank: staff sergeant.
Asked how many of the dozen other young men on the boat were part of his group — a "force protection" military training exercise just underway — the staff sergeant smiled and said, "There's nobody on the boat right now."
His T-shirt bore a skull insignia with seven fading stars in front and the words "Til Valhalla" in back. In memory, he said, of the seven Marines who died when a helicopter crashed during a training exercise in March off the Florida Panhandle.
And that's as personal as the staff sergeant gets.
The others wore a motley mix of clothing, from full camouflage to anonymous T-shirts and jeans. One sported a full beard. They toted heavy packs, water bottles and jugs, coolers and a decided cloak of reserve.
Once the boat drew alongside the Cape Avinof, one of nine aging military vessels still left in the dwindling James River Reserve Fleet, the men shouldered their packs and stepped single-file onto the ship's ladder, then up two stories or more to the main deck and disappeared.
The scenario was routine for fleet superintendent Martin Walker. For years, the U.S. military has increasingly booked time on his vessels for role-playing exercises, he said, from force protection to search-and-seizure, from hostage rescue to helicopter approach-and-hover.
"We've had just about every service here, except for the Air Force," Walker said. "A ship is an entirely different environment. Things that are land structures aren't always translatable to a ship — steep ladders and key places on a ship that you need to get to to take control of it. Having a ship like that, that you can train on, is a big plus to them."
Other agencies train there, too — the FBI, local law enforcement, firefighters. Walker's office logs about 6,000 training days each year, or one day of training per person.
"So that gives you an idea of the activity that we see," he said.
Birth of the Ghost Fleet
Training exercises are one way the federal government tries to keep its National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) — which includes the fleet in the James River — relevant and worth its keep.
The national reserve fleet was formally established in 1946 by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, to keep and maintain surplus ships for national defense and emergency response. MARAD is an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But the James River fleet actually predates the formal NDRF by three decades. In 1916, the country began using the James to store ships being mass-produced in preparation for entry into the Great War then raging in Europe.
It was around that time the term "Ghost Fleet" was first used, said Jeffrey J. McMahon, Norfolk-based operations officer for MARAD's entire Atlantic division. Not because the ships were essentially dead in the water, he said, but for the eerie look of them when caught in a low-hanging fog bank.
After World War I, hundreds of ships were anchored in the James. Many remained until World War II when all the vessels were reactivated, leaving the anchorage empty from 1940 to 1945. As that war ended, ships began to return, Walker said, until by 1946 about 850 vessels were packed in cramped rows stretching for miles from above Deep Water Shoals Light to Burwell Bay.
Vessels have cycled in and out over the years, sold off to foreign governments at times or cannibalized for parts, said Walker. About 2,000 have come and gone in the James River fleet alone.
And when they finally outlive any useful purpose, the ships get broken down for scrap, recycled or, in a few cases, sunk off a coast as an artificial reef. Some are scuttled in weapons testing.
At its height in 1950, the national reserve fleet held 2,277 vessels at eight anchorages around the country, including Fort Eustis.
Today, only three anchorages remain: Fort Eustis; Beaumont, Texas; and Suisun Bay in Benicia, Calif. By the end of May there were only 100 vessels left, nine of them in the James.
Only four of the James River vessels are marked for retention — for training or logistics purposes — while the rest are slated for disposal.
But experts say it doesn't mean the fleet will disappear entirely, and in fact it could expand as federal defense cuts and a trimmed-down military signal more military vessels might get mothballed.
"Is it the right size now? Yeah," said Paul Gilmour, deputy director of MARAD's Office of Ship Operations in D.C. "Is there a potential to grow again? Absolutely. Certainly when we see the Navy's talking about cutting back, there's large potential that some of those ships will end up there."
Ready Reserve Force
While the fleet has supported every war effort since it began, the country decided it also needed a smaller, more nimble fleet capable of deploying fast to support the military in a crisis anywhere in the world.
So in 1976 MARAD established the Ready Reserve Force (RRF), a subset of the larger national reserve fleet but operated along with the U.S. Department of Defense, which funds it. For FY2015, the DOD budgeted $291 million, which MARAD says also funds the larger NDRF.
The RRF began with six merchant ships out-boarded to various ports. It peaked at 102 ships in 1994, and today has 47 ships. They provide a broad mix of support, including roll-on/roll-off transport, tanker storage, aviation repair and homeland security training.
Three of those ready reserve ships are berthed at a pier at the southern tip of Newport News.
Built in the late '60s and early '70s as commercial container vessels, the Cornhusker State, Flickertail State and Gopher State were converted to crane ships — portable ports that can deploy in five rapid-fire days to replace ports wiped out by war or natural disaster.
"When my phone rings, these ships have to be underway in 96 hours and finish the sea trial in 120 hours," said McMahon.
The crane ships are massive — and unique. Unlike commercial versions, their cranes are fixed to the side of the vessel. This allows them to offload other container ships in a damaged port, such as when Kuwaiti ports were sabotaged during the first Gulf War, McMahon said.
It was one of Newport News' crane ships that conducted a secret voyage in 2008 to transport yellowcake uranium out of Iraq, he said. In 1990, the Flickertail and the Gopher took U.S. military weapons out of Germany during reunification.
"A lot of commercial operators are a little squeamish about letting their ships be used for those kinds of things," McMahon said.
The MARAD fleet is also deployed on humanitarian missions, including to Haiti after its devastating earthquake, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and New York after Superstorm Sandy.
Wilson "Zig" Ziegenbein is captain of the Cornhusker and its retention crew of nine merchant mariners. When the ship is deployed, however, his crew will swell to about two dozen in two or three days.
"I kind of think of this fleet as … kind of like the firemen of the merchant marine," Ziegenbein said. "We sit around here in the station and we're ready to go. Push the button and we're gone. So wherever something comes up anywhere in the world, or you need stuff moved, we're the guys."
Ready reserve ships get surprise activation notices four or five times a year, McMahon said. Each time, they may have to activate as many as 12 vessels simultaneously, get them out to sea for a day then return to report to the DOD.
"It keeps us on our toes," McMahon said.
Reserve force ships will get a military detachment for security if needed, Ziegenbein said, but merchant mariners also get small-weapons training and a cache of firearms is kept onboard.
"We could at least try to defend ourselves against pirates," the captain said.
He said he believes it was the Cornhusker whose crew once had to defend itself from a small boat attack during the Gulf War.
Other reserve force crews have had risky encounters, McMahon said, including coming under fire while evacuating the last 500 U.S. troops from Mogadishu, and again while in port in Haiti during a period of civil unrest.
The shrinking Ghost Fleet
When a ship in the Ghost Fleet needed scrapping, it used to be sent to Third World countries such as India or Bangladesh, where scrap yards had fewer qualms about what's considered a dirty and dangerous industry.
Carcinogens such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are baked into the structure, and ships can also contain trace amounts of oil, lead and mercury.
But in 1993, after reports of environmental damage and even death at Third World shipyards, President Bill Clinton ordered a halt to exporting vessels for scrapping. For about a decade after, the Ghost Fleet began to build up, with most ships anchored off Fort Eustis.
In 2000, Congress ordered MARAD to get rid of the backlog within six years, but with limited funds and limited domestic ship-scrapping capacity, the maritime agency couldn't meet that deadline. Instead, it began removing the most hazardous ships in the worst condition.
Meantime, concerns grew in Hampton Roads and among state leaders about the environmental dangers of keeping deteriorating vessels in the James River.
Under President George W. Bush, more money was allocated to scrap the vessels domestically. Depending on swings in the steel market over the years, MARAD was paying as much as $2 million for scrap yards to take a vessel off its hands, or was getting paid by salvage companies to do so, according to reports.
"That's when you saw a whole bunch of those vessels suddenly leave," said Kim Strong, a spokeswoman at MARAD. "And I think it gave the impression to people that the fleet was going away. But the fleet will never go away."
By 2009, the disposal effort for the James River fleet was winding down, with only 26 vessels moored off Fort Eustis, none of them considered high-risk. Federal officials shifted their focus to reserve fleet ships off California.
Since then, McMahon said, MARAD has sold 50 obsolete vessels for recycling, providing nearly $16 million for its maritime academies, for ship repair, maintenance and fuel.
Upkeep and crew payroll on the James River fleet and the ready reserve ships in Newport News together generate about $20 million annually in economic activity for Hampton Roads, he said.
"Which, compared to the Department of Defense, is small," McMahon said. "But, still, $20 million is $20 million."
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.
Source: Daily Press. 15 July 2015