FORT EUSTIS, Va. -- Watch your step.
You might not see rats -- the food's long gone -- but topside on some of the rusting ghost ships in the James River Reserve Fleet, you can see through holes to the deck below.
Grass grows on the deck of the cargo ship Marine Fiddler, moss and weeds on others. Pigeons leave foot-high hills all over the World War II Liberty ship Arthur M. Huddle. Peeling paint hangs in strips from cabins in the oiler Saugatuck. Water covers floors in the tanker Truckee. Peregrine falcons are protected on another ship, but they didn't show up this year.
Ninety-four ships remain here in one of three U.S. mothball fleets. Including the ships kept in Beaumont, Texas, and Suisun Bay, Calif., the National Defense Fleet numbers 237 dry-cargo ships, tankers, military auxiliaries and other vessels. At its peak in 1950, there were 2,277 ships.
Ninety-one of them -- including nine of the James River fleet -- are Ready Reserve ships that can be activated within days to support troops in war. But most of the vessels moored here are kept with minimum maintenance, and rust covers patches or entire decks once painted traditional haze gray.
Rust eats at the broad white decks of the Henry Eckford and Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, unfinished Navy monuments to waste. These 677-foot giants, tankers that would have weighed 40,000 tons if fully loaded, cost taxpayers $450 million before they were put into mothballs without being completed. They never served a day.
In few other places can one feel more sharply the short life of large ships, the corrosive effect of inaction and the decline of U.S. merchant ships.
"Most of these ships have all been born and died since I left the merchant marine 50 years ago," says Henry G. Rippe, 71, of Pageland, S.C. He served from 1943 to 1949 on Liberty ships and once on a World War I relic.
It is tougher for the old sailor to walk these decks, catwalks and ladders than it was 50 years ago. He has come with 14 other former seamen, keen-eyed scroungers, volunteer members of Baltimore's Project Liberty. They have been authorized to explore six old ships headed for scrap and remove usable items -- from steam gauges to paper napkins -- for their decade-old restoration of the Liberty ship John W. Brown, berthed at Pier 1 Clinton Street in Baltimore.
Rippe lugs boards and metal pieces up steep ladders. He has to rest and stop carrying the heavier loads. Once he did everything fast. "I was only 19 then and knew no fear," he says. Now, "I think I'm the last ordinary seaman of World War II." He's not; the Brown's crew has others.
The old sailors cross the decks of 18 ships, wearing hard hats, life vests and steel-toed shoes. They carry flashlights, tools, lunch buckets and -- on the way back -- small pieces of the ships. They trudge up and down companionways and ladders, along swaying, creaking makeshift catwalks between ships, down dark corridors into pitch-black holds.
The former Navy and commercial ships here are a mixed lot.
The Ready Reserve cargo ships -- dehumidified, regularly maintained and some staffed with small crews -- could be reactivated in five, 10, 20 or 30 days in emergencies. Of the nine in the James River, eight served in the Persian Gulf war: Cape Alava, Cape Ann, Cape Archway, Cape Cod, Cape Mendocino, Cape Nome, Lake and Scan. (Cape Chalmers did not.)
To keep a ship in 10-day readiness can cost $2.5 million a year, and a 30-day ship costs $600,000, says John Swank, a spokesman for the U.S. Maritime Administration, which manages the fleet. Ships headed for scrap can cost $20,000 to maintain. In 1990, the Maritime Administration reported that it was spending $1.4 million annually on direct maintenance of its older "non-retention" ships and would realize no more than $32.7 million from scrap sales.
Many ships will be towed away and junked. Others might be sold, reconditioned and put to nonmilitary uses. In September, the World War II-vintage American Victory was towed to Tampa, Fla., to become a mariners museum and memorial.
The old James River anchorage has held ships since after World War I. They are tethered together in rows, arranged bow to stern for better mooring.
Some carry thousands of items useful to the appreciative Brown crew. Machinery, metal boxes, bedding, dinnerware, life preservers and scores of other wartime items remain in the former Vietnam troop ship Gen. Nelson M. Walker, a 609-foot, 22,574-ton vessel that served from 1945 to 1981.
Sitting on the western perimeter, missing its nuclear core, is the Savannah, the only commercial nuclear-powered U.S. ship built. Launched in 1959, it was retired in 1971, too costly to run as a cargo and passenger carrier. It sat at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, S.C., for almost 13 years but became too expensive for the museum to maintain at $125,000 a year and ended up in the mothball fleet.