USS Sanctuary leaves harbor to be recycled

Former Navy hospital ship served in two wars

  • Tugs move the retired Navy hospital ship Sanctuary out of the berth it occupied for years in Baltimore's harbor. It will be recycled at a plant in Texas.
Tugs move the retired Navy hospital ship Sanctuary out of the… (Jean Calambro, BALTIMORE…)
August 19, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

The former Navy hospital ship USS Sanctuary, which served in the aftermath of World War II and in Vietnam, has been sold and is now under tow from Baltimore to Brownsville, Texas, for recycling.

The move marks the end of a 22-year residence in Baltimore Harbor that was troubled by deterioration, failed business ventures and lawsuits. The Sanctuary left the harbor Wednesday.

Two suits are still pending. But the 529-foot ship's former owner — Potomac Navigation, Inc. — is in settlement talks with the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the Port of Baltimore, the newly emptied space at Berth 5 in the North Locust Point Terminal is a new business opportunity.

"It's very good progress for us. We haven't been able to market that berth because we didn't know when it would become available," said Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. "We look forward to new business and certainly new days ahead for that berth."

Lawrence J. Kahn, the attorney for Potomac Navigation, said the company is disappointed it was prevented from using the ship as it was originally intended — as an "accommodations platform" and storage facility for port expansion workers in the United Arab Emirates.

But on "the bright side," he added, "the vessel is no longer a burden on the Port of Baltimore, and is going to be properly and legally recycled such that the metals and other valuable parts of the vessel will be able to be reused, and the toxins will be properly disposed of by the buyer."

The Sanctuary has been tested and found to contain dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals used extensively in ships of that era.

The buyer, ESCO Marine Inc., in Brownsville, has agreed to recycle the Sanctuary in accord with "all applicable environmental laws and regulations … under the resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

The work will be done under the oversight of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Maritime Administration.

"We believe this is a positive outcome for the environment, and the public, and in line with the health safeguards of the Toxic Substances Control Act," said Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. He also confirmed that "settlement negotiations are ongoing" on the remaining lawsuits, but declined to comment further.

The USS Sanctuary was built in 1944 at the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in Chester, Pa. It was commissioned on June 20, 1945, and sailed for Pearl Harbor. It arrived four days after the Japanese surrender in August. It then sailed to Wakayama, Japan, and helped to care for and repatriate 1,139 prisoners of war, mostly from Britain, Australia and Java.

Hundreds more patients and passengers — military and civilians — were taken on board and repatriated in late 1945 and 1946.

Decommissioned in 1946, the Sanctuary was idle for 20 years. Then, in 1966, it was refitted with updated medical gear and sent to the coast of South Vietnam in April 1967, according to the Naval Historical Center.

By the end of its first year at Da Nang, the Sanctuary's staff had admitted 5,354 patients and seen 9,187 outpatients.

Jim Beaty, of Memphis, Tenn., served on the Sanctuary in Vietnam. "Memories, mostly pleasant, but some horrifyingly unpleasant, will fill my mind and soul forever," he said via email after learning of the ship's fate. "Aboard Sanctuary, lives were saved, disease was fought, and those that served and those that were treated, should always be gratified."

J. Kevin Culley, served as a radioman 3rd Class from 1967 to 1969. He lives in Rhode Island now, and remembers Sanctuary as a place of "extraordinary people who did extraordinary things."

"Often that help pad was a confused site of deck crew, corpsmen, wounded and pilots. Lots of noise, lots of tension, but all knew their tasks and never flinched — even when chaos seemed to prevail."

Michael Newton was a 21-year-old Marine rifleman when he was wounded and flown to Sanctuary for multiple surgeries on shrapnel wounds.

"The care aboard U.S.S. Sanctuary was great; the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen, couldn't have been kinder and more skilled," he said in a message to The Sun. "I think about those highly charged days often, even after all these years."

Decommissioned again in 1975, the Sanctuary was idle until 1989, when a charitable group bought it from the Navy for $10 and brought it to Baltimore for use as a medical training facility.

When that venture failed, the ship was acquired by another group, called Project Life, for service as a drug treatment center. In 2001, the Port of Baltimore signed an agreement with Project Life allowing the ship to remain berthed at Locust Point. But the project failed, the lease expired in 2006, and the ship was abandoned.

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