Aging sub, once sold to Iran, is destined for scrap

March 15, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- At a remote part of the naval base here languishes the remnant of a past era when Iran and the United States were close military partners: the dinosaur hulk of a U.S. submarine that Iran once bought for $30 million.

For more than 12 years, it has been sitting dead in the water, the victim of a bitter international custody battle triggered by Iranian-backed terrorism and fueled by a U.S. refusal to release Iranian property kept in the United States.

"It's still seaworthy," insists Richard "Woody" Woodford, one of the maintenance men who checks the submarine's condition at least once a week. Asked what will become of this well-preserved relic, he shrugs his shoulders and asks, "You want to buy it?"

Known as the USS Trout but dubbed the Kousseh by the Iranians, the submarine is actually destined for the scrapheap; Iran dropped its claims on the vessel and other military hardware as part of a $278 million financial settlement paid by the United States last December. The Pentagon figures it can recoup only about $100,000 by selling the scrap.

The Trout, which once set a distance record for non-nuclear submarines by sailing beneath Newfoundland ice floes for 268 miles, is taking up too much room, explained Robert E. Drayton, assistant director of the "inactive ship maintenance facility" at the base.

Today, 28 mothballed ships crowd each other at the docks, most of them lined up so snugly alongside each other that maintenance crews can virtually hopscotch from one boat to another. By the end of the decade, as many as 40 ships may be stored at the facility because the Navy will not have the money to operate them, Mr. Drayton said.

While Iran tried vainly to reclaim the Trout, few people had a clue it was docked here and no one saw it, except for its caretakers and a rare visitor. "We're too busy to lead tours anyway," Mr. Drayton said.

The submarine, which was commissioned in June 1952, has maintained its anonymity even though its stark black outer deck and conning tower stand out against the gunmetal gray cruisers nearby.

A string of broken Christmas lights stretches from bow to stern, a distance shorter than a football field and about half the length of modern nuclear subs.

But inside, little seems to have changed since a crew from the Iranian Imperial Navy and their U.S. advisers took the vessel on a trial run in the Delaware River in 1979. The submarine still has its pump, ballast and air-conditioning systems, navigation equipment, sonar, radio gear and even mattresses for the short, narrow racks that serve as beds.

"There's a lot of equipment you don't see anymore," Mr. Woodford said. "Strictly low-tech."

The wisecracking, barrel-chested man, who as a shipyard worker once helped refurbish as many as 12 submarines like the Trout for export in a single year, slipped effortlessly through the vessel's tiny hatches while leading a visitor from the spacious forward torpedo room to the battery room, command center, galley, mess area and the cramped engineering and torpedo rooms aft.

"Look here in the radio room -- everything's intact," Mr. Woodford said, enthusiastically tapping a panel of black knobs as if showing off the dashboard in a used Studebaker. "Here's a gyrocompass. These are the masts for the periscope. This panel here, you've got valves connected to 3,000-pound bottles of air to blow your tanks for ballast."

Flood and fire alarms have been mounted throughout the boat, and a dehumidifier keeps moisture in the air at 45 percent to discourage mildew. Electrodes are draped over both sides of the submarine, connected to a device designed to keep the hull from rusting.

"It's low-cost maintenance, especially if you keep the ship sealed," said Bill Mebert, who inspects ships with Mr. Woodford. "You're paying for a little electricity, really."

A good thing, considering how long the Trout has been here.

Iran bought the Trout on Dec. 19, 1978, the same day the U.S. Navy decommissioned the Philadelphia-based vessel, one of the last diesel-electric submarines in what was becoming a nuclear-powered fleet.

But soon after the deal, Islamic fundamentalists seized power in Tehran. By Nov. 14, 1979, Americans were being held hostage and President Jimmy Carter had imposed a freeze on all U.S.-held Iranian assets.

Lately, Iran's interest in reclaiming the Trout became clearer with disclosures that it is buying at least two new Russian-built attack submarines for the express purpose of controlling the Strait of Hormuz. By positioning them at the strategic choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Iran could hinder commercial shipping, drive up oil prices and trigger a naval arms race in the area, U.S. intelligence officials say.

A State Department official said recently that under no circumstances would the United States have agreed to transfer the sub to Iran, which remains on the list of countries that support terrorism.

Nonetheless, the consignment of the Trout to the scrap pile is disconcerting for members of the maintenance crews who used to overhaul ships at the adjoining shipyard.

"We were here in the '60s rebuilding some of these ships," said Mr. Mebert, 57, who already feels a sense of personal loss.

"It's kind of like raising children. It gets to you. You kind of fall in love with them."

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