Houston Chronicle
October 14, 1998

Galveston may close World War II submarine to public


GALVESTON - After 27 years on display here, the World War II submarine USS Cavalla may be closed to the public, city officials say.

The possible closing of the submarine, which sank one of the Japanese aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, has many veterans ready to do battle again to preserve the naval display in Seawolf Park on Pelican Island.

"We're planning on what we're calling a march on Galveston," said Ron Smith, president of the San Jacinto chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans World War II. "We're going to meet at Seawolf Park on Nov. 10 and then, hopefully, we'll be able to meet with some of the city fathers or whoever it is running things.

"That's the day before Veterans Day, and we consider that particularly appropriate," said Smith, 73, a retired auto factory representative from Spring who helped arrange to bring the Cavalla to Galveston in 1971.

The veterans may have a clearer idea of what the city's Park Board of Trustees plans for the Cavalla by the time they come to Galveston. The issue is on the board's Oct. 27 agenda.

The submarine has drawn thousands of visitors since it was placed at the park along with the destroyer escort USS Stewart. Now, however, both vessels are in disrepair and attendance and revenues are dwindling.

The Cavalla was acquired from the Navy and placed at Seawolf Park by the Texas chapter of the submarine veterans' group.

While park board officials seem to view the naval display more as a tourist attraction, veterans consider it a war memorial.

"The Cavalla sank the Shokaku, one of the aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor," said Smith, who served on four underwater war patrols on the USS Skipjack and the USS Seal. "That's pretty damn historically memorable, and there's a lot of history associated with the Cavalla. It represents the other submarines that are not preserved, too."

Smith and other former submariners have participated in annual ceremonies at the Cavalla in memory of the 3 ,617 men and 52 submarines lost in World War II.

City officials say Seawolf Park is a financial burden and the Cavalla's popularity has waned.

"The board's position is that, over the years, the attraction of that naval display has dropped off," said Lou Muller, the park board's executive director. "There are other attractions, high-tech things like Moody Gardens, that we compete with.

The board hasn't kept count of the visitors to the naval display in recent years but, at $2 for adults and $1 for senior citizens and children under 12, revenues have dropped from $84,000 in 1995 to $69,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 1997, Muller said.

"We haven't closed the books yet, but the projected revenue through this past Sept. 30 was $54,000," he said.

"The net income from the naval display, after expenses, is about $5,000," he said. "But, when you figure the capital improvements required specifically on the submarine, it's estimated it will take $125,000 to $150,000 to correct some deck structure problems alone."

The park board shored up part of the deck several years ago, but Muller says a complete restoration would take at least $1 million.

Meanwhile, the park's operating deficit continues to climb, from $35,000 in 1996 to about $70,000 in the fiscal year just ended. It is expected to hit $140,000 by next October, Muller said.

Smith and other submariners hope area foundations will come to the Cavalla's rescue or a campaign to raise money from the general public can be launched. He said such vessels are in demand around the world.

"There are only about 15 of them left in the world," he said. "Even Hong Kong tried to buy it, but the U.S. government wouldn't let it go to a foreign entity."

The park board's operations committee is expected to consider Seawolf Park options at its Oct. 20 meeting, Muller said. A recommendation will go to the full board Oct. 27.