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20 May, 2013

Silence of the Lions

All archaeologists must endure the ignorance of a populace that thinks we dig up dinosaurs (that would be paleontologists) or look for gold (leave that to geologists, prospectors, pirates, treasure hunters,...pretty much everyone except archaeologists, who chose their profession in part due a pathological aversion to wealth). But those among us whose work is basically to maintain compliance with historic preservation laws must also face a public that cannot fathom that something a mere 50 years old is considered Historic. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard, "But that's just trash" or "Well hell, I'm historic then," (think again, pal, you need to be dead and abandoned for 50 years), then I'd be rich, and might therefore have to give up archaeology.

On the other hand, we occasionally get to see some interesting, if not ancient, things. Like the moldering and abandoned maritime heritage of WWII, for example. My agency disposes of these things, obstructing our waterways or fouling the water, boats and floats that are beyond repair, of interest to nearly nobody; my job is to wring whatever information I can from them before they become actual garbage.

The boat above was launched in 1944. I don't have the full history yet, but it became a Coast Guard boat after the war, and eventually was sold off. This is the second boat of about this size and age that I've documented recently; the WWII boats that are left are not doing well for the most part, and before long all but a few beloved ones will be gone. Many are steel, but WWII still saw production of a lot of wooden boats.

Mass production, to be precise. My grand-dad was a teacher who spent summers in tidewater Virginia building Liberty Ships. These may be the epitome of mass production, but the more WWII-vintage vessels I see (tugs, dry docks, patrol boats, and so on), and the more of them I investigate, the clearer it becomes that the majority never saw any action. Many were never really mobilized, launched in the last year or two of the war only to sit idly until they were  sold as surplus for pennies on the dollar. Eisenhower, administrative officer extraorindaire, probably recognized the waste, speaking out as he did years later (as president ordinaire) against the perils of a military-industrial complex; before said beast was a threat to our economy and freedom, it was guilty of (mere) overproduction. But in 1944, neither Ike nor FDR nor any of the (finally) employed shipyard workers was about to object to padding the reserves and making a few extras if it meant the Emporer and Fuhrer (oh, and the Depression) would be defeated. 

But the fact is, many of these machines of war never did roar, or even approach the action. They sat. They collected dust and rust until they could be sold off. 

Other materiel was just cut loose, apparently. This photo is of a float that held up anti-submarine nets deployed in Puget Sound. Again, I lack a detailed knowledge of the history, whether this system would have really worked if needed, or when the sub-nets were abandoned. But the floats have lived up to their name, and bobbed around Puget Sound for decades. The heavily galvanized bolts that hold together the deeply-creosoted timbers can sometimes still be loosened, and although many are starting to fall apart, others are more or less like they appeared for years. Well, less, I guess, since one of the problems with these is that they leach toxic creosote into the water. That and their tendency to obstruct navigation and damage shorelines is why they are being removed. 

Yes, there were lions that roared during the war. Great guns on boats that laid waste to Japanese fortifications on Pacific Islands and German ones in Normandy, landing craft disgorged hordes onto beaches. But many of those were sunk or so heavily damaged that they do not survive today, or were so important that they became shrines, no longer used. The overproduction, on the other hand, escaped notice like the floats, or was repurposed like the boats. They saw no action, and lived to see another day. And another and another, until time and the elements did to them what the Imperial Fleet and Admiral Doenitz could not. So I walk around them and crawl through them, mostly in silence, taking photos and writing notes that may be their last words.

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