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History and Heritage

The Grey Ghost:

Examining the Future of USS Clamagore

An American flag flies above the charcoal, Cold-War era submarine, USS Clamagore (SS-343). The sub idly sits, sun-faded in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor as saltwater eats at it, causing orange rust and corrosion.

Inside the narrow steel haven, Patriot's Point Naval & Maritime Museum volunteer and Navy veteran Sid Busch stands as the captain of this retired vessel. The Clamagore is, for Busch, more than a giant steel tube. Inside a time capsule of days past, memories drift on his mind like a cool breeze as waves lap on a humid afternoon against the submarine in the harbor. More than a longtime friend, she is among the only family Busch has left. He even goes in early to pick up trash before the tourists show up to view the Clamagore - named after the blue parrot fish, found on coral reefs in shallow water.

"Sometimes I'll be sitting on the battery and have flashbacks to 50 years ago," Busch said, reflecting on his service days. He is 70 years old with a chiseled jaw, a retired Navy senior chief and an experienced runner who has run more than 200 marathons.

Busch served on the Clamagore from 1969 to 1972 as a sonar technician. He's been volunteering at Patriots Point, near downtown Charleston, for the past 10 years, giving tours of the boat he first boarded when he was 19. These days, he often incorporates personal stories into his detailed and impassioned tours. But Busch's days aboard his beloved Clamagore could be numbered.

The 320-foot submarine, which has called Patriots Point home since 1979, could become an artificial reef off the Florida coast. To remain a floating museum, she needs an expensive restoration, one that could cost about $6 million, according to Chris Hauff, a Patriots Point spokesman, and the lack of financial resources to fix the Clamagore may one day sink the vessel.

Two Navy ships at the maritime museum, USS Yorktown (CV 10) and USS Laffey (DD 724), also require repairs and maintenance that are deemed a higher priority. Museum officials are looking into the possibility of reefing - in other words, sinking - the Clamagore so that she becomes a permanent underwater museum, Hauff said.
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"With our budget of a couple million, we can't do all three of the ships. The USS Yorktown needs $40 million worth of work and for us - that's what people come to see," Hauff said. "It comes down to a business decision: Where do we put money when we have it?"

Although Clamagore is registered as a national historic landmark, even that can't save her. According to documents from a Palm Beach County Commissioners meeting in January 2016, the submarine can receive approval to become scuttled (deliberately sunk) as an artificial reef by the Naval Sea Systems Command through the Section 106 historical review process, which requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their actions on historic properties. It further dictates that documentation, such as war diaries, deck logs and operation reports, be taken off an historic vessel like the Clamagore. These records would then be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration.

Recent reports suggest the Clamagore will wait in the harbor for at least a year while the Navy decides if it will approve the plans.

The Grey Ghost


The diesel-powered Clamagore was commissioned following World War II to patrol the Caribbean and North Atlantic during the Cold War. Nicknamed the "Grey Ghost" of the Florida coast during her service, she is now the last submarine with the Balao-class GUPPY III upgrade. This improved the submerged speed, maneuverability, battery capacity and overall performance of the Clamagore.

After decommissioning the submarine in 1975, the Navy donated her to the state of South Carolina, and Patriot's Point was given the responsibility for the Grey Ghost's maintenance and upkeep. Those costs are now unsustainable.
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According to Hauff, Patriots Point contracted Artificial Reefs International, a Miami-based firm that creates reefs for economic development and environmental benefits by sinking ships, to find a reef suitable for the Clamagore. Palm Beach County, Florida, officials agreed to the project and put aside a million dollars toward reefing the Clamagore off the coast of Jupiter, Florida.

"People could enjoy the history of the ship, just from a different way," Hauff said.

Reefed submarines and ships serve as underwater tourist attractions, allowing experienced scuba divers and tourists to dive and explore with guides.

If the Clamagore is reefed, sponges, coral and barnacles will attach themselves and colonize the vessel over time, and an array of fish species will take over not long after it sinks. Joe Weatherby, senior project manager of Artificial Reefs International-USS Clamagore said reefed vessels provide marine life with protection from predators, breeding opportunities and food sources while also offering economic opportunities for scuba diving and fishing industries.

Bill Cogar, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association, a nonprofit that helps preserve and market historic ships across the world, supports a responsible and accountable way to reef the Clamagore. He contended that the submarine, having run her life's course, would remain a functional object, and noted that the equipment removed from the submarine could be distributed to other vessels of Clamagore's class.

"The worst thing that can happen ... is a ship that has to be scrapped," Cogar said. "Becoming a reef is a rather attractive end-of-life opportunity. Our realization is we cannot save all the ships. Ships age, they deteriorate, and they're very costly to maintain."

Fate, Hope & Clarity



For Busch, the Clamagore is still worth saving, however: "These submarines had personalities. I guess it's because when you came on a submarine, you had to learn it backwards and forwards. ... Each submarine developed their own unique personality. The synchronicity to how they rode on the surface - they started to be more like a living entity then just a metal tube."

He's not the only one who wants to see her restored rather than reefed. The main hope appears to lie within the USS Clamagore SS-343 Restoration and Maintenance Association, which has been working to relocate the submarine to a land berth. That way, it could still serve as a submarine museum and memorial for future generations, according to Rick Wise, secretary of CRAMA and retired Navy senior chief.

"We are not trying to do anything that has not been done before," Wise said. "It reduces the maintenance cost quite a bit."

He explained that CRAMA is trying to get a letter of intent from the South Carolina state legislature. Between that and a number of corporations interested in saving the Clamagore, he believes CRAMA could raise enough capital to store the submarine in a shipyard temporarily. Then the team would evaluate the damage, make the necessary preservation repairs and purchase land to permanently house the Clamagore.
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"We're not giving up," Wise said optimistically. "We're submarine Sailors, we don't give up until we're on the bottom and we've blown all the air we can."

Still, the Clamagore's fate and the destiny of two lifelong friends remain uncertain. If and when she leaves Patriot's Point, Busch plans to stop volunteering at the maritime museum. He feels he would no longer be needed and that it would be too difficult to return once she is gone.

"I always tell people, she kept me safe, she got me home. It's my turn to save her, and, unfortunately, I couldn't do a good enough job at it," Busch said, his words rinsed with emotion. "It's going to be a dark day for me when she finally leaves. I plan to show up just to see her towed out."

For now, the Clamagore rests at a secluded far end of Patriots Point's concrete dock - perhaps spending her final months in South Carolina as museum ship before the Grey Ghost of the Florida coast permanently returns to the waters she once patrolled.