This story has been revised to reflect a correction, which is posted below the article.
March 30, 2010
By Thomas J. Walsh
An aircraft carrier familiar to hundreds of former Philadelphia U.S. Naval Shipyard workers will be returning to the Delaware River this year, according to John Grady, senior vice president of real estate services for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
The PIDC is the quasi-public entity charged with turning around the former Navy base in South Philadelphia.
The Forrestal will "be mothballed right next to the JFK, right there on the river in front of Urban Outfitters’ building,” Grady said. “The JFK was the last ship that was overhauled in the Navy Yard.”
The Forrestal was the first of the so-called “supercarriers,” commissioned in October 1955.
(Full disclosure: This reporter was stationed aboard the Forrestal as a Navy broadcast journalist from 1988 through 1991).
The Forrestal passes beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as it arrives in Manhattan for Fleet Week in 1989.
The Forrestal spent more than two years in Philadelphia from 1982 through 1985, undergoing a $550 million Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). The ship arrived again in Philadelphia in September 1992 for a scheduled 14-month, $157 million overhaul, with the aim of rendering the ship a “training carrier” to be home-ported in Pensacola, Fla. But a year later, the Navy instead decided to decommission her.
With the success of the retired battleship USS New Jersey, now a tourism fixture on the Camden waterfront, Grady was asked: Might there be any such efforts with one of what will be at least two carriers at the Navy Yard?
“I don’t think the Navy is interested in that,” Grady answered. “As long as the Navy owns the ships, they put them in mothball status, and they restrict access to them. With the New Jersey, basically the state set up a nonprofit and they invested million of dollars to make the ship accessible to the public.
The Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1995.
"If someone was interested in doing that, I suppose it could happen, but that’s a very difficult business to be in," Grady said. "People don’t realize how expensive it is to operate and maintain a ship and make it handicapped accessible.”
As it happens, there are plenty of people who are interested in doing that. There’s a group in Bensalem (the USS Forrestal Naval Museum) that has been advocating for an upriver presence for more than a decade. Another group (the USS Forrestal Museum, Inc, based in West River, Md.), is also trying to save the ship from being destroyed.
Various other municipal and veterans groups up and down the Eastern seaboard that would like to make the ship it’s very own version of the USS Intrepid, an older aircraft carrier that is now a successful sea, air and space museum docked on the Hudson River in Manhattan.
The Intrepid, which saw service in World War II and Vietnam, is a much smaller vessel than the JFK or Forrestal. The latter two are in excess of 1,000 feet in length and a football field in width, weighing some 60,000 tons.
But no organization was deemed "viable" to take control of the Forrestal, and the Navy removed it from its official "donation hold" status in 2004.
The JFK, as it enters Philadelphia in March 2008 (PhillySkyline.com).
A Department of Defense web site known as the online Naval Vessel Register has it that the Forrestal is listed as “stricken, to be disposed of.” That means that it has been “formally removed from the Naval Vessel Register by [the Secretary of the Navy] on recommendation of [the Chief of Naval Operations]. A legal preliminary to disposal.”
This week, a spokeswoman for the Naval Sea System Command in Washington, D.C. said that no time frame has been set, but confirmed that the Forrestal will be towed from Philadelphia at some point, to be cut up into scrap metal or sunk as a deep-water artificial reef.
Correction: April 1, 2010
In its original form, this story quoted a city official who stated that a second aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, was coming to Philadelphia. According to the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C., there are no plans to move the Saratoga at this time.