Hometown News For Orange County, Texas

Post-war project brought ships to Orange

Probably no one in Orange County today will remember the Ready Reserve Fleet, but many still know of the "mothball fleet."40

The U.S. Navy's "mothball fleet" along the Sabine River was a familiar landmark to those who lived here in the 1950s through 1970s.

It was part of the federal government's post-World War II plan for the national defense to store navy vessels that were no longer needed. The nickname came from the common household chore of putting woolen clothes in storage with mothballs to fend away insects that ate the material.

Though the chemical "mothballs" were not used, the ships prepared to prevent decay so they could quickly be reactivated in case the military needed them.

The Navy called the project "Operation Zipper."

During the war years, the shipyards in Orange were turning out vessels quickly as the city's population grew to an estimated 60,000 people as workers and their families came for the work.

Some of those locally-produced ships came back for storage when the fighting ended. According to an Associated Press story in March 1947, the navy decided to store unused war vessels instead of sinking those vessels like the government did after World War I.

The AP reporter, when writing about the new facility in Orange, probably didn't know that a few of those World War I ships were sunk in Orange. They were wooden ships built here on sites still used in the shipping industry. The wooden ships were taken into the Sabine not far away and then burned. The hulls didn't burn and remnants of those ships from the early 20th Century have been notorious hazards for boaters for a century.

Eventually, about 150 vessels ended up being berthed in special storage on 12 piers built of wood with concrete piers. Remnants of the piers, along with a couple of renovated piers still in use, can be seen today.

The area where the ships were stored is currently part of the city of Orange's Boat Ramp area or it belongs to the Port of Orange.

The local population and industrial booms of the 1940s war years were destined to end sometime. Orange officials expected to lose some population, but were encouraged by the construction plans for the new DuPont petrochemical plant.

More good economic news came in October 1945, two months after the end of the war. The U.S. Navy announced plans to make Orange one of its eight sites to berth war vessels for access to the Atlantic Ocean. Another eight sites were announced for ships to get access to the Pacific Ocean.

The Orange base was to have 5,500 workers and store from 100 to 150 ships. The announcement didn't say whether the estimated number of workers included construction crews, civilian workers, or navy personnel who would be moved in an out.

Records show up to 850 military personnel were assigned to the "mothball fleet," but that information does not include the number of civilians who worked there or the number of construction jobs.

The Brown and Root company got the government contract to built the piers and do dredging to help accommodate the vessels to the berthing site.

The piers were by the Riverside housing project, which was quickly developed during the war years from pre-fabricated houses so that defense workers and their families had a place to live. An estimated 5,000 people lived in the Riverside area, which once had three elementary schools and its own shopping area.

The Associated Press story in 1947 said Orange was chosen as a site because of it had shipyards available. The giant Consolidated Steel shipyard, with metal buildings still being used for ship repairs today, was built before the war under the direction of the Navy.

Also, the story reported Orange's Sabine River was fresh water which helped keep barnacles away. In the 21st century, salt water intrusion up the Sabine may mean that area is not immune to the little metal destroying crustaceans.

Another reason for making Orange the home of a "mothball fleet" was the county had a mild climate and plenty of available housing. That housing included the Riverside development plus Navy Park, which had been built for Navy officers and their families assigned here as the country prepared for war.

The story had one reason that may leave current residents perplexed. The pier site was "protected from hurricanes."

The first ship to be put in "mothballs" arrived in December 1945, according to a 1945 newspaper account. When the story was written a mere three months after the first, 120 ships were docked. They included destroyer tenders, minesweepers, seaplane tenders, ammunition ships, landing craft and a giant floating dry dock.

Some of the ships were "battle scarred" but were being put in "first class condition."

The first step to making a reserve ship ready and in "mothballs" was to make it fully equipped with supplies stored below deck. Then the area was dehumidified and sealed. Once a ship was sealed, no one was allowed below deck. The reporter said no rust could form and nothing would deteriorate in the sealed condition.

The guns and defense mechanisms were covered with plates of steel. The beehive-shaped coverings became a familiar sight in Orange. After the ships left years later, some people acquired the coverings and used them for backyard storage.

The AP story reported it took three months to "inactivate" a ship.

The official name of the berthing complex was the U.S. Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility," according to the Texas State Historical Association Online. The first commander, Captain T.R. Cowie, was assigned in 1945. The yard covered 168 acres with about 150 vessels at the 12 docks.

Historical accounts record that 30 of the vessels stored in Orange, the only time a large number were called into duty.

By the late 1960s, the Navy began selling the stored ships to other countries. Seeing sailors from foreign lands in town were an interesting sight to local residents in the early 1970s. By 1980, all the "mothball" ships were gone.


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