Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sep. 23, 1999
Former submariners surface to help save WWII boat

By Art Chapman
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

GALVESTON -- The World War II submarine USS Cavalla appears to have barely survived its most desperate mission.

Sitting aground near Galveston Bay, the once-sleek sub is now a pile of rubble -- its black skin peeled away in chunks to expose a rusty nest of pipes and wires. The deck is dilapidated; the wooden slats darkened and crumbled like stacks of charcoal. Old men fishing nearby, casting in the bay for flounder, hardly notice the ancient submarine anymore. They turn a blind eye to the restoration efforts that are going on. The Cavalla stopped being a tourist attraction long ago.

This year, Galveston's parks department threatened to remove the submarine from Pelican Island, a small triangle of land north of downtown. That threat moved people to action.

"It amazes me," said Zeb Alford, a retired Navy captain and an executive officer aboard the Cavalla during the 1950s. "We are using all volunteers -- former submariners -- to repair the ship, and they are coming from all over the country. We've had a very active group from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "When you ask them why they come, they say that they never found the kind of camaraderie they enjoyed on the subs anywhere else in life. They feel it again working together on the Cavalla."

The submariners rallied to save the World War II boat, coming on weekends, paying for their lodging, food and supplies. Only recently has a foundation been formed to solicit donations. Alford estimates that it will take more than $500,000 to fully restore the submarine. This weekend, Alford, who went on to command nuclear submarines after his tour of duty on the Cavalla, is taking a group of civilians aboard the nuclear sub USS Houston for a daylong excursion out of San Diego. It is a goodwill trip sponsored by the Navy, and Alford hopes that the visitors will return the favor by donating to the Cavalla restoration fund.

The Cavalla has been on display at Seawolf Park on Pelican Island since 1971. It was selected as a memorial to the more than 3,600 submariners and 52 submarines the nation lost during the war. It is sponsored by the Submarine Veterans of World War II. On its first voyage in June 1944, the Cavalla sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku, which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"When we heard that the city of Galveston was getting ready to build a trailer park or something like that at Pelican Island and get rid of the Cavalla, a fellow here in Galveston started getting the word out to all the submariners, and he kind of galvanized the group," Alford said.

"You have to understand, they think of this as a war memorial, not a tourist attraction." The former submariners show their devotion by visiting Galveston on weekends to strip the ship of its rusted superstructure and clean the dark, crowded quarters below decks.

When the boat was set aground at the Galveston park, the teak decks were covered with concrete so tourists could easily walk about. In hindsight, it was a mistake, and all that concrete is being chiseled away. Below decks, the brass wheels, stainless-steel gauges and copper lines have all been painted. The paint is being peeled away and the chrome polished. "We've even had some 30 parolees from the Galveston area working on the boat," Alford said. "They've been the ones breaking up the concrete on the decks.

"We're trying to get everything done by April 28. That's when we plan to have a reunion of all the former crew members and everyone who has worked on the restoration." Alford said the April celebration will also coincide with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. submarine service.

Special thanks to Billie McMichael & Dave Stoops for providing this article.