Visitors to historic naval ships are frequently amazed at the size and complexity of World War II warships. They marvel at the radar consoles, sonar stacks, gunfire control systems, and the myriad other electronic components that are crammed into a typical World War II ship. What few visitors realize is that most World War II ships on display today are Frankenstein’s monsters, cobbled together from parts of other ships from the various reserve fleets. While many ships gave a few pieces and parts to museum ships, this article pays tribute to one ship in particular, the USS GAGE APA-168, which was recently towed out of the James River Reserve Fleet to be scrapped in Brownsville, Texas. Over a twenty year period, the GAGE gave parts to many of the ships in the eastern United States. This is her eulogy.
The USS GAGE APA-168, named for a county in Nebraska, was built by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company in Portland, Oregon, under a Maritime Commission contract. The Haskell class attack transport was launched in October 1944 and commissioned one month later under the command of Commander Leroy Alexanderson, USNR. The ship completed her shakedown in San Diego, California, before departing for the Pacific Theater in January 1945.
After a brief stop in the Russell Islands, the GAGE arrived at Guadalcanal in February, where she began amphibious training for the Okinawa invasion. After loading Marines from the 6th Marine Division and supporting units, the GAGE joined the invasion fleet at Ulithi and then sailed on to Okinawa. The ship spent five days on the beach at Okinawa under constant alert from kamikazes while landing her men and supplies. With her load discharged, the GAGE departed Okinawa and arrived at California in May 1945.
The GAGE then sailed for the Philippines with Army Air Corps men and equipment, arriving in mid-June. She spent the next two months transporting men and supplies from New Guinea to the Philippines before returning to the US once again in early August. She was in dry dock when Japan surrendered. In late August the GAGE sailed for the Pacific yet again, this time carrying relief troops to Saipan. She then carried Marine occupation forces to Japan before embarking on the first of several Magic Carpet voyages to carry veteran servicemen home from the Pacific.
Her final Magic Carpet run ended at Norfolk, Virginia, on 29 July 1946. The GAGE remained in Norfolk until being decommissioned on 26 February 1947. She became part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet until 1958, when her name was stricken from the Navy List. Like so many other World War II ships, the GAGE was relegated to the James River Reserve Fleet to await her eventual destruction. Her story would have ended there but for a chance phone call in 1989.
Then Superintendent of the USS KIDD DD-661 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tim Rizzuto made annual phone calls to the various reserve fleets to inquire about ships that were available for stripping. His contact at the James River Fleet casually mentioned that they had just offloaded a pallet of 20mm magazines from the GAGE, which was being prepared for disposal. Rizzuto put together a trip from Louisiana to Virginia in only two days. He found the GAGE to be “a veritable time capsule. Treasures were all over the wharf.”
After renting a twenty-four foot truck, Rizzuto and his crew loaded World War II era spring bunks, mess tables and benches, lookout chairs, an SG radar console and horizontal plotting board for the KIDD’s CIC, 20mm ready service lockers and magazines, troughs for the crew’s heads and enough incandescent light fixtures to replace all of the KIDD’s postwar fluorescent fixtures. The GAGE became an annual destination for the KIDD’s scavenging crews for the next eight years. These trips took on a sense of urgency in the early 1990s when it appeared that the Navy was readying the GAGE for disposal as a target ship. However, new regulations regarding ship disposal and a bird’s nest saved the GAGE and her treasure trove of parts.
The Navy was forced to delay the GAGE’s destruction due to tougher environmental impact laws. The ship had to be inspected for any potentially harmful substances, such as PCBs and asbestos. Remediation of these threats forced the GAGE to remain in the James River far longer than the Navy had anticipated, which also allowed crews from several historic ships the opportunity to scavenge parts from her. Just as the GAGE appeared to be ready for her destruction, a rare and federally protected peregrine falcon made her home in the GAGE’s aft radar mast. The Navy was thus forced to wait until the falcon’s eggs hatched and a new generation of falcons left the nest. Once they flew away, the GAGE could be towed out to sea. However, bureaucracy being slower than the falcon, by the time all the permits for the GAGE’s destruction had been granted, the bird had returned to the mast and laid more eggs, forcing yet another delay. This cycle continued until 2008, which gave the historic fleet ample time to remove nearly everything of value from the ship.
Ironically, the GAGE was almost saved in 2004 when another legislative change forced all reserve ships up for disposal to be evaluated for their historical importance. The GAGE, being one of the last unmodified World War II attack transports, was listed as a possible museum-worthy ship. Efforts were made to save the ship, but they ultimately fell through. The ship would have made an outstanding museum ship in 1989, but by 2004 she had been picked over by so many other historic ships she was but a shell of her former self.
Scavenging went on even as the GAGE navigated the processes of historic preservation. Tim Rizzuto, who in 1997 became the Executive Director of the USS SLATER DE-766 in Albany, New York, began organizing trips to the GAGE almost immediately upon his arrival to New York. Having been thoroughly stripped prior to being returned from the Greek Navy, the SLATER required a massive amount of equipment for her restoration in New York. Parts removed from the GAGE include the air search radar console and antenna, a rangefinder, autoclaves for the sickbay and wardroom, bunks, mess trays, light fixtures, fans, speakers, and nearly all of the equipment in the SLATER’s radio room.
SLATER work crews made runs on the GAGE nearly every year from 1997 to 2008. Other parts removed from the transport included galley equipment, troughs for the SLATER’s heads, and a loud hailer for the mast. SLATER volunteer Jerry Jones described his scavenging trip to the GAGE as “a spiritual experience for me, especially below in the troop berthing compartments where too many of the soldiers and marines spent their last days.” In 2008, when it was clear that the GAGE’s days were numbered, SLATER volunteers made one last trip to the James River Reserve Fleet. Now that the GAGE was no longer energized, the scavengers were able to strip electrical components that were off limits while the ship had electrical power. In addition, crews were allowed to remove several watertight doors that would have been nearly impossible to find elsewhere.
The GAGE’s end finally came in 2009. On 23 July, the ship was towed out of the James River Reserve Fleet to be scrapped in Brownsville, Texas. Other historic ships such as the USS MASSACHUSSETTS, USS TEXAS and SS JOHN W. BROWN took advantage of this relic and received many parts from the GAGE. The USS KIDD and USS SLATER could never have been so thoroughly restored without her. Tim Rizzuto, who has scavenged dozens of ships in his long career, said of the GAGE, “The longer I stripped her, the worse I felt … No ship gave more to the historic fleet than GAGE … It is a sad thing to see her go, the last of her breed, and she deserves to be remembered as a ship that kept on giving long after her service days were over.”