JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A retired Navy destroyer that survived enemy fire, Pacific typhoons and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico will spend its days watching over the calm waters of Northeast Florida as a museum ship dedicated to educating visitors about its decades of service.
The USS Orleck originally launched in 1945 and served in numerous wars, including World War II and the Vietnam War, where it earned the nickname of "Grey Ghost of the Vietnam Coast."
Historians say the ship rightfully earned the nickname after firing more than 11,000 rounds and earning 14 battle stars during war.
The U.S. ship was decommissioned in 1982 and served two decades as a Turkish Navy ship before ending up back in the U.S. in 2000 as war memorabilia.
From its tours of duty to its stints as a museum ship in Texas and Louisiana, the nearly 80-year-old destroyer has seen its fair share of weather disasters.
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Former crew members remember watching waves from typhoons break over the ship’s deck in the Pacific, but its largest challenges from Mother Nature may have taken place along the Gulf Coast.
The 390-foot vessel rode out several infamous hurricanes, including Rita, Laura and Delta, and through all, it has lived to tell the tales of battering seas and damaging winds.
Hurricane Rita was first major Gulf of Mexico test
The 2005 hurricane season was one of the most active on record, with few parts of the Gulf Coast spared from Mother Nature’s fury.
This included the USS Orleck’s home port in Orange, Texas, which suffered a significant strike during major Hurricane Rita.
Winds gusted to 115 mph in eastern Texas, but one of the ship’s former superintendents believes it wasn’t waves or the winds that did the most damage to the destroyer.
"A big crane barge broke loose during Hurricane Rita and rammed right into the ship. It tore a hole in the stern and a hole in the side of it above the waterline. It did a bit of damage," Steve Miller, a former ship superintendent, said.
Despite the damage, Miller said the Orleck remained afloat, and repairs made it suitable for a non-profit in southwest Louisiana to take over the ship.
Surviving Category 4 Laura
What was one of the most significant events for Louisiana during the 2020 hurricane season also put the survival of the USS Orleck to the test.
Hurricane Laura was a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph when it smashed into the southwest portion of the state, where the ship was ported.
Despite being 30 miles inland along the Calcasieu River, the location was not far enough away to spare the vessel from damage.
"We had the ship pretty well secure, to our thinking. But the strong winds caused a number of vessels tied up along the river to break loose, including our ship," Miller said. "The ship was pushed around by the winds, and the vessels were basically banging into each other."
Ship operators knew the news would not be good, considering the massive storm’s eye went over the Orleck in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
But after the storm cleared and damage assessments were completed, operators determined it would survive.
"Most of the damage was from the vessels striking it above the water," Miller said.
Because of the quick back-to-back nature of the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast during the 2020 season, there was not enough time between strikes for the boat’s operators to make repairs before facing the next weather threat.
Hurricane Delta was a walk in the park
Hurricane Delta made landfall as a much weaker cyclone than Laura, with winds of around 100 mph in southwest Louisiana on October 9, 2020.
Before the storm impacted the region, the operators again tied down the ship and made sure it was ready to withstand yet another storm.
Despite the damage incurred during Laura, Delta did not impact the ship as extensively, and it stayed true to its form.
"It’s not like a commercial or cruise ship. There are many water watertight compartments. So you can damage this ship and flood part of it, and it’ll stay afloat," Ron Williams, former executive director of the USS Orleck Museum, said.
During the hurricane offseason, the ship was towed to Port Arthur, Texas, where it underwent months of maintenance and repairs ahead of its next mission.
Next challenge for ship
When the USS Orleck returns as a museum ship, it will do so in new waters and under different operators.
The ship underwent millions of dollars in repairs and is awaiting its reopening in Jacksonville, Florida.
Both Miller and Williams believe the ship could easily see over 100,000 visitors a year on its new perch along the St. Johns River.
Thousands of retired personnel from World War II through the Korean and Vietnam wars still visit the ship.
"When former sailors come aboard and their families, it’s really special. It’s just a real treat to show them the ship. And we’ve learned so much from them and incorporate it into tours," Williams said. "It’s just great to honor them for what they did."
An opening date for the ship has not been set, but the Jacksonville Maritime Museum said it hopes to be welcoming visitors aboard during the summer.