SCHENECTADY This spring, for the first time in 17 years, the USS Slater won’t be open for visitors.
The ship is in dry dock, getting a long-needed overhaul to its hull.
But it will be back on the Albany waterfront by mid-June, with new metal on its hull and a new paint job to protect it from the ravages of time.
The Slater is the last remaining destroyer escort afloat in the United States, Executive Director Tim Rizzuto said.
It was part of the U.S. Navy in World War II, and was given to the Greek Navy in 1951. When the Greeks took it out of service in 1991, World War II veterans raised $290,000 to get it towed back to the United States.
After it spent four years at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, the veterans painstakingly restored the ship in Albany and opened it for tours.
“It was a wreck. They basically did everything,” said B.J. Costello, chairman of the board of trustees.
But they didn’t have the money to look at the bottom of the ship.
Now, finally, they’ve raised $1 million for hull repairs.
“There’s been some deterioration of the hull,” Rizzuto said. “It’s just a function of time. These ships weren’t built to last 70 years.”
The group had hoped to go to dry dock with $1.2 million — enough to fix the hull and several other problems. But they’re still short. If they don’t raise the last $200,000 by the end of this week, they’ll have to forgo some of the repairs, Rizzuto said.
At the end of the week, they’ll know exactly how much damage must be repaired on the hull, which is being sandblasted now. At that time, they’ll have to make final decisions regarding how much else to fix, and what they can’t do for a lack of funds.
“It’s a very time-critical issue right now,” he said.
He wants to replace rusted metal on deck and make mast repairs while the ship is in dry dock, noting that it would be much easier there. The shipyard has cranes and other heavy equipment.
“Things are so easy to do in the shipyard,” Rizzuto said. “They can do in two weeks there what would take us two years.”
The only thing not on the agenda for this repair trip is the engines. They could be restored to running condition, but he estimated the cost at $10 million.
He’d love to fix them and take students on weekend cruises down the Hudson River.
“But it’s beyond our means right now,” he said. “It’s not something that will happen in my lifetime.”
Still, Rizzuto thinks the ship will long outlive him. Ships from the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War are still afloat and preserved.
“Even though there’s not many veterans of the War of 1812 left,” he joked.
He thinks the children and grandchildren of the veterans of World War II will keep the Slater in good repair through their donations for generations to come.
Besides, Costello said, the ship is just fascinating. Children and adults alike love it.
“They get to see it, touch it, feel it. They walk away from it awed,” he said.
He was won over by the story of one destroyer escort, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, during one engagement of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II.
The Samuel B. Roberts and a handful of other small U.S. warships attacked a Japanese flotilla of much larger ships Oct. 25, 1944, and succeeded in keeping them away from ships carrying 50,000 U.S. troops who were about to land in the Philippines.
The Samuel B. Roberts scored numerous hits, racing so close to one Japanese ship that it couldn’t lower its guns far enough to hit the American ship. But eventually it was torn apart by Japanese shells and sank, taking nearly half its crew to their death.
One of the sailors who died had just become the father of a baby girl in Albany. That girl grew up to be Costello’s wife’s best friend.
When Costello heard the story, he fell in love with the ships that fought battles despite being out-sized and out-gunned.
“I just thought, how courageous!” he said. “This is terrific! Somehow, we should make sure people know about this!”
And so a Slater volunteer was born.
Costello can’t get enough of the stories now, and he loves to tell them to visitors at the Slater.
For Costello, it’s more than just a ship. It’s a living museum, an homage to all the work done by those who designed, built and worked on the ships during the war.
“The Slater is the real symbol of the effort of thousands of Americans, who hindered the [German] U-boats by destroying them,” he said. “Effectively, they turned the tide of history.”