Scores of rusting old ships float in ranks on an inland bay northeast of San Francisco, looming out of the chilly fog like ghostly oceangoing tombstones.
Congressional critics want to junk the 66-ship Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, but Charlie Johnston, caretaker of the "ghost fleet," says the ships are ready to weigh anchor if the nation needs them again."Many of these ships go back to service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam," said Johnston, 40, the fleet's acting superintendent.
Hanging on a wall is a board with the name and location of each ship, 33 of them World War II Victory ships, all part of a fleet that once numbered 700.
"Pick one. You call it," he said to assure that a tour wouldn't steer the visitor toward a specially prepared ship. A CIA spy vessel is off limits, though.
During the last session of Congress, the ships here and at Fort Eustis, Va., and Beaumont, Texas, came under fire from the House Small Business Committee's subcommittee on regulation, business opportunities and energy.
"The taxpayers are getting repeatedly fleeced for these maritime cadavers," said Rep. Ron Wyden of Oregon, subcommittee chairman. William S. Broomfield of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described the ships as "glorified rust buckets."
The array of ships local landlubbers call the "mothball fleet" is impressive from a distance, and the spookiness that earned it the nickname "ghost fleet" is evident while approaching in a tugboat.
They're tied in rows, anchored at the bow and stern and joined to each other by gangplanks. Almost all are gray, and rust stains their hulls.
They include the Glomar Explorer, the CIA ship built to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine. Since the secret voyage off Hawaii in 1974, the 618-foot ship has been waiting for a new role.
"We keep the Explorer here for the Navy," Johnston said, explaining the Glomar isn't Maritime Administration property like nearly all the other ships.
You can't visit the Glomar, but the Meredith Victory, dubbed "The Gallant Lady" for rescuing thousands of Korean War refugees, is a good substitute.
Rust was rampant. Paint chips littered the deck, leaving metal naked to the elements. Painters used to keep busy on the fleet, but money ran out in the mid-1980s.
"Besides, to us rust is no big deal as long as the metal is sound," Johnston said as he stamped his foot to show the steel's hardness. "If it really got bad we could put another plate over it."
Unlike the outside, the ship's interior was clean, almost spotless - and creepy.
Charts, books, spare parts, bedding and other items were left where they were in 1971 when the ship returned from Vietnam. The lack of interior rust is maintained by systems that keep airborne moisture low.
Below deck, it must look much as it did in December 1950, when it evacuated 14,000 Koreans as Chinese troops besieged the city of Hungnam. Five babies were born during the voyage that ended in Pusan on Christmas Day.
Built in 1945, the cargo vessel served in World War II. It became part of the reserve fleet after Korea, only to be pulled out for duty in Vietnam.
Could it happen again?
It would take a presidential act to call out the reserve fleet, which is supposed to be ready to sail on 30 to 120 days' notice. The Ready Reserve, 96 newer ships kept at several ports, was set up to carry heavy military gear on five to 20 days' notice.
Much of the Ready Reserve, including some ships from here, were called up after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August.
"Sealift ships carried 90 percent of the Desert Shield equipment," Johnston said with obvious pride. "Planes just can't do it."