Inside a Ghost Fleet Ship – AS-32 U.S.S. Holland

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By Jonathan H

"Ghost Ships" An Image of the J Row of the Mothball Fleet, with the U.S.S. President at the forefront - © Amy Heiden

"Ghost Ships" An Image of the J Row of the Mothball Fleet, with the U.S.S. President at the forefront - © Amy Heiden

Floating in the brackish waters of Suisun Bay is a fleet of decaying ships, many which have outlived their useful lives. Known as the Ghost Fleet, a few of these ladies of the deep have survived long enough to serve in three wars.

Gaining access to these closely-watched vessels is a privilege given to a chosen few. Fellow photographer and friend, Amy Heiden, was one of those few – and her recent story about visiting one of the ships (the AS-32 U.S.S. Holland, a 1960s-era Hunley-class submarine tender) is recounted in vivid detail on her website.

The U.S.S. Holland in Spain - Courtesy USSHolland.org, via Amy Heiden.

The U.S.S. Holland in Spain - Courtesy USSHolland.org, via Amy Heiden.

Amy’s trip to the Holland holds a special place in my heart, particularly because I’m somewhat obsessed with the history of all things nuclear and radioactive. Just browse around this site, and you will become well aware of my unhealthy obsession. So, it goes without saying that her experience on the ship was a true treat. After all: The Holland carried Poseidon warheads – gigantic, menacing submarine-based rockets that traveled 8,000 miles per hour with a payload of up to 14 reentry vehicles (viz. nuclear warheads!). But let’s allow Amy’s words to speak for themselves, shall we?:

“As we descended down a ladder, I reached up to turn on my headlamp, only to discover that we were immersed inside the mess, surrounded by plastic blue tables and yellow seats. Our flashlights blinded our eyes as the beams reflected off the metal cabinets covering the walls. Across the room, I noticed an old soda fountain, complete with drink labels that appeared to have been typed by a computer.”

Later, as Amy follows a cadre of experienced mothball aficionados inside the Holland, she is showna gigantic cargo hold that vertically spans the entire keel of the ship. According to the interview she conducted with a former crew member, the space she saw once held the radioactive waste-water of nuclear-armed submarines. Of course (we can only hope!), Amy arrived in this space long after its cleanup rendered it safe to explore.

"Vertigo" - the once-radioactive modified hull of the U.S.S. Holland a Vietnam-era submarine tender - © Amy Heiden

"Vertigo" - the once-radioactive modified hull of the U.S.S. Holland a Vietnam-era submarine tender - © Amy Heiden

Amy’s experience is just one of many she’s had. In all she’s taken nearly a half-dozen journeys out to the mothball fleet. And her important documentation couldn’t have come at a better time. The Obama administration – rightly so – has made the removal and dismantling of the toxic ships a top environmental priority. As a result, MARAD is scrambling to find suitable shipyards that will recycle the ships in the most environmentally benign manner. In the last few months, two of the ships that the Suisun Bay fleet hosted have been cleaned and exported to the shipyards in Texas. It’s likely that – soon – Mare Island Naval Shipyard (an abandoned and mothballed naval shipyard in and of itself) will be another facility equipped for handling this delicate and important task.

This image - generously provided through the exhaustive research of Amy, and courtesy of MARAD - shows the Naval Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) in the 1950s, when 400 ships were moored along the shores of Suisun Bay.

This image - generously provided through the exhaustive research of Amy, and courtesy of MARAD - shows the Naval Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) in the 1950s, when 400 ships were moored along the shores of Suisun Bay.

At one point soon after the second World War, the NDRF fleet held 2,277 ships. Today, that number has dwindled to 230 ships (between 2003 and 2007 alone, 44 ships were removed from the fleet). I’m honored to know someone who has taken up the important task of documenting these relics of history before they’re gone forever. I hope you will take a look at Amy’s story. Do browse around, too, if you have the inclination; Amy’s dedication to photographing the pieces of the past extends far beyond the fascinating journey she narrates in her story about the Holland – nay, even her trips to the NDRF.

Further Reading

Amy’s detailed narrative of visiting the fleet

KQED’s map with history and citations of ship names and dates

San Francisco Chronicle : NDRF cleanup efforts

9 comments on “Inside a Ghost Fleet Ship – AS-32 U.S.S. Holland

  1. Great post and thanks for the link to Amy Heiden’s blog!

  2. Susan Bowes on said:

    Wow, this is so amazing. Nice follow up with the KQED site map. I really liked that you had another explorer give her story as well. Truly amazing!

  3. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    @Adam: Amy’s blog is a magical tome of exploration goodness. Be sure to subscribe.
    @Susan: The KQED, I must say, is somewhat out of date – some of the ships annotated on the map are no longer there, sadly :-(

  4. David Tompkins on said:

    Amazing! I served on the Holland for 4 years…from Rota Spain to Bremerton Washington…then back overseas to Holy Loch Scotland. And after all these years she is moved just 20 miles from my home in Napa!

  5. Pingback: You’re Invited: Mothball Fleet Revealed - Bearings

  6. joe lambert on said:

    I am searching for pics of the rubber and plastics shop aboard the uss holland and also the rewind shop
    Is it true thatthe ship was radioactive after all? I wasdiagnosed with an illnessthatthe navy did not diagnose correctlyand as it turns out , the disease mimics radiation poisoningand 7 of us got it all the same time aboard the Holland and we spent morethan 6 weeksin the rota naval hospital. Did the ship get moth balled because of the radiation or what? i am joe lambert andi served aboard her from 1971 to 1973. Any info youmight add wouldbe helpful
    the VA has refusedto help me to attain raidiation records from the holland where i was repeatedly exposed aboard her and on subs. I am seeking the truth as are many other sailors who were aboard her. joseph lambert

  7. Kevin Rickard on said:

    Does anyone know if there where any radcon or other exposures to chemicals on the Holland during 75 – 77?

  8. Bill Harry on said:

    Hi Kevin, I worked in radcon from 75 to 77. Worked on the first two steam generator inspection and repairs onboard subs in reactor compartment. Not sure what you mean about “exposure?” There was plenty of “hot” stuff on the Holland. Don’t recall any exposure problems.

  9. Walter Wadlington on said:

    Served on the Holland in Holy Loch, was a radioman, enjoyed the ship, and Scotland a lot, sad to see her laid up.

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