Once it was Japanese torpedoes and kamikaze suicide planes. Then, the threat of the wrecking ball. Now, it's money — or the lack of it — that could imperil the future of the USS Intrepid.
Nineteen months after tugboats pried it from the mud at its Hudson River pier and towed it away for a much-needed renovation, the legendary World War II aircraft carrier needs a sizable infusion of cash to resume its postwar career as a floating military museum.
If all goes according to plan, the ship will be brought back in early October and formally reopened to the public on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
That depends on finding the wherewithal to complete a job that was first estimated at $65 to $70 million and is now expected to cost $110 million, said Bill White, president of the USS Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Of that total, $66 million is for rebuilding its city-owned pier, and the rest for the museum ship.
In a move he said he never expected would be necessary, White has put the Intrepid's $15 million endowment up as collateral to cover expenses. That money would be repaid, he said. He also asked the federal government to pony up more money for costs of returning the ship, including $9 million to $12 million for dredging a trench for it to rest in.
White insisted, however, that both monetary goals and the November deadline will be met.
"We are going to get this done, come hell or high water — hopefully, the latter," he said.
Intrepid, one of the Navy's fabled Essex-class carriers widely credited with winning the Pacific war, was launched in 1943 and fought in every major battle prior to Japan's surrender in 1945. It repeatedly sustained heavy damage, was patched up and sent back into the fray. Intrepid served in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was twice a recovery ship for Mercury astronauts before being retired in 1974.
Among five WWII carriers serving today as floating museums, none has a combat record to match the ship that survived five kamikaze attacks and lost 270 crew members.
"We want people to understand that while $110 million is a lot of money, it is difficult to put a price on honoring our nation's heroes," said White, a former restaurateur who has raised millions for the Intrepid museum and its related charitable enterprises serving families of dead and wounded service members.
‘Unimaginable’ to be without Intrepid
"The idea that this ship could survive all that it did in wartime and 60 years later face a new threat to its existence would be unacceptable. To be without USS Intrepid is unimaginable and that is never going to happen," he said.
Once ensconced at its Hudson River pier in 1981, the old warship needed time to gain public acceptance. Except for the annual Fleet Week visitation — ongoing this week — the U.S. Navy rarely shows up in New York City and is largely ignored when it does. Over time, both the Intrepid and its city-owned pier deteriorated so badly that in November 2006, the ship was ingloriously dragged out of the mud and towed to New Jersey for the two-year overhaul.
At every stage, the work has cost more than had been anticipated. Just pulling the ship out of 17 feet of mud and bringing it back will cost some $19 million, nearly four times the original estimate, White said. That includes dredging the new trench where the ship will rest as the mud again embraces and protects the aging hull.
The pier itself had to be replaced with a new 700-foot structure on pilings sunk into the harbor bed, said Noreen Doyle, a vice president of the Hudson River Park Trust, a nonprofit that manages the city-owned shoreline park extending along Manhattan's west side.
The total cost of the pier, in a complicated mix of public funds and money raised by the Intrepid, will be about $66 million, well above an original estimate of some $38 million.
The Intrepid now sits at a former Navy pier on Staten Island, looking not all that much better than when real estate tycoon Zachary Fisher ransomed it from a Philadelphia scrapyard in 1979 and turned into one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
While its 900-foot hull has been repaired and repainted Navy gray, the interior is a jumbled work in progress, as workers open up crew quarters and other spaces not previously accessible to the public and create new exhibits on the hangar deck. When the $10 million installation is complete, interactive digital displays will be side by side with real WWII aircraft and a Soviet-built MiG-21 in an open space running the length of the ship.
The emphasis, along with tourism, will be on education, in keeping with K-12 science and history programs that the museum already sponsors in city schools, drawing some 50,000 students a year, says Intrepid director Susan Marenoff.
The ship's collection of some three dozen aircraft — some of them rare — has undergone refurbishment elsewhere, and efforts are under way to trace each one's history and find pilots who flew them to get their stories on record.