Galveston WWII museum: Toil, donations restore rusting hulks

In this Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 photo, Dewayne Davis, left, and Dr. Kerry Crooks in the forward torpedo room of the submarine USS Cavalla at Seawolf Park, in Galveston, Texas. Several years ago, the submarine USS Cavalla and destroyer USS Stewart were in such bad shape, that the Navy wanted them removed from Seawolf Park. The hiring of two Navy veterans and a lot of work by volunteers has transformed them into living museums of World War II combat vessels. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Cavalla Historical Foundation

Editor’s Note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chornicle.

GALVESTON (AP) — The sight of the rusted lathe inside the USS Cavalla made Kerry Crooks weep.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

The former Navy submariner had volunteered to help restore the Cavalla, a submarine that sank one of Japan’s mightiest aircraft carriers during World War II, and the destroyer escort USS Stewart at the American Undersea Warfare Center in Seawolf Park on Pelican Island.

“There is a little bench there, and I sat down there and I cried,” Crooks said. “It was that bad.”

Over the next two years, through donations, the work of volunteers and the leadership of Crooks and another Navy veteran, the two warships were transformed. The restoration has drawn praise from the Navy, and the vessels are becoming a major tourist attraction.

A step through a hatch into the Cavalla or the Stewart in the southwest corner of Seawolf Park is a step through time. The Alabama-based Gulf Coast Living History Group has re-created living quarters on the vessels, with bars of soap and toiletries from the 1940s in an officer’s bathroom on the Cavalla and uniforms hanging in the captain’s quarters on the Stewart.

- Advertisement -

The most striking change has come over the past two years, but the resurrection of the two vessels was accomplished over two decades as efforts to keep them in repair waxed and waned.

The restoration was accomplished with little help from the Galveston Park Board. Unlike the rest of Seawolf Park, the Undersea Warfare Center is kept afloat solely by volunteers and donations. The Park Board gives the center 50 percent of the park entry fees and maintains the grounds, but contributes nothing to the upkeep of the warships, said Crooks, president and CEO of the Cavalla Historical Foundation.

Crooks was a volunteer when the rusted lathe, used to fashion metal submarine parts, so saddened him. A month later he received a call while boarding a plane in Orlando, Fla., that he had been appointed president.

With the help of Dewayne Davis, a former Navy and Coast Guard maintenance expert, he set out to complete what volunteers had been trying to accomplish since 1999. Crooks’ daughter, Tori, then 20, took on the lathe as a special project for her father. It took her the entire summer, but she changed the lathe from an eyesore to an attraction.

- Advertisement -

“That was the worst eyesore on either ship,” Crooks said.

Groups of 30 to 40 volunteers from neighboring Texas A&M University at Galveston began scraping and painting on weekends. Veterans who had served on destroyers arrived from all over the country for a few weeks each year to lend their expertise and muscle. “They spearheaded the turnaround of the ships,” Davis said.

The Navy inspects the two vessels every year, and Navy officials were impressed this year.

“I see more passion with the repair to this submarine than I have in some active duty vessels I’ve been on,” Crooks quoted a Navy inspector as saying.

The improvements and advertising have drawn an increasing number of visitors from Houston. Crooks said the budget is about $220,000, but an increase in gate fees and donations over the last two quarters are up 62 percent over expectations.

The plan is to add attractions to lure visitors back, Crooks said. The center is considering cutaways covered with Plexiglas on key components such as engines and has applied for a grant to buy period uniforms for docents who conduct tours.

Meanwhile, the fight against rust never ends.

“Since rust never sleeps, every day that we come aboard there is a renewed battle with it,” Crooks said.

The Cavalla, a Gato-class submarine named after a saltwater fish, was commissioned June 19, 1944. On its first patrol, it was harried by Japanese destroyers but put three torpedoes into the Shokaku, one of the aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor. The sinking was the first by a U.S. submarine of a Japanese fleet carrier and earned the Cavalla a presidential unit citation.

The Navy donated the Cavalla in 1971 to the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, who gave it to Galveston to become the basis for Seawolf Park. The veterans wanted the park named after one of the 52 submarines sunk during the war. They chose the Seawolf, lost at sea after sinking more tonnage than any other U.S. submarine.

The Navy had originally donated another submarine, the USS Cavilla, but the city failed to prepare a resting place as promised, and the Cavilla rusted away at anchor. The veterans pleaded with the Navy for another submarine and were granted the Cavalla.

The Stewart, an Edsall class destroyer escort, was built in Houston and outfitted in Galveston before being commissioned in 1943. The Stewart hunted submarines in the Atlantic and the Pacific before joining the Cavalla at Seawolf Park in 1974.

The warships were poorly maintained, and equipment went missing. By 1996 the Navy was considering moving the Stewart to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. Two years later the Galveston Park Board decided to scrap both vessels and turn Seawolf Park into an RV park.

Submarine veterans were outraged and won a battle with the Park Board to take control of the vessels. The veterans formed the Cavalla Historical Foundation in 1999, and volunteers began the process of restoring the vessels.

The volunteers were appalled at what they found.

“It was a disaster,” former park manager John McMichael said in a 2011 Chronicle interview.

Rust had eaten at the vessels, visitors had stolen vital parts, such as pieces of the Cavalla’s periscope, and vandals had shattered instrument dials. Every bunk bed had vanished.

Donations trickled in, and repairs progressed slowly but steadily.

The progress was threatened in 2007 when the Galveston Wharves board entered into an agreement with the Houston Port Authority that envisioned removing Seawolf Park to make way for a container port. The Park Board vigorously protested, and so far there has been no further effort to build a container port.

Hurricane Ike struck the next year, causing rust damage and punching a hole in the sub. Repairs to the hole in the Cavalla’s bow continued in 2011.

Two years later, vandals dealt another setback to the Stewart, spraying 50 pounds of rust-inducing fire extinguisher powder on its deck and interior.

All the while volunteers kept working, undaunted by the setbacks. In 2012 the foundation named the exhibit the American Undersea Warfare Center.

Crooks said the restoration progress was enhanced by a new crop of foundation board members with military backgrounds. And the restoration continues.

“It’s never-ending,” Davis said.