Retired carrier Nassau, berthed in Texas, still holding strong
By DAN WALLACH | Beaumont Enterprise, Texas | Published: November 15, 2013
BEAUMONT, Texas — In the haze of the Southeast Texas sky, the shape and color of the vessel is unmistakable — boxy and gray with a flat top and a superstructure perched on the right side of the deck.
The deck doesn't have quite enough room for a conventional fixed-wing aircraft, like a clunky old dive bomber from 70 years ago or a sleek and lethal supersonic spear of an F-18.
The ship, christened the Nassau, once served the country as a Tarawa-class helicopter assault carrier.
That class of ship is named for a grim island battle in World War II, which took a heavy toll on the Marines who fought it.
The Nassau was one of five of the amphibious assault ships and is now in the Inactive Ship Maintenance anchorage in the Neches River, where the Cape class of military cargo ships also are berthed.
Ray Porter, Inactive Ship Maintenance site director, based in Bremerton, Wash., said the Nassau could be reactivated after six to 12 months' worth of work in a shipyard.
The Tarawa class has been replaced by the America class of amphibious assault ships.
Porter said the assault ships are in a class sailors nicknamed the "Gator Navy," because the ships ferried Marine battalions, helicopters and the "very short takeoff and landing craft" like Ospreys and Harriers.
"We maintain the ships until the Navy decides what to do," Porter said.
Once a ship is decommissioned, it no longer carries the designation "USS," Porter said.
The Nassau had a varied career, taking part in combat operations during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991. It also provided recovery aid after Hurricane Ike in 2008, similar to what the USS George Washington, one of the Navy's big nuclear-powered carriers, is providing in the Philippines after it was struck by a super typhoon a week ago.
The Nassau isn't the first retired carrier to take up residence in the Neches.
The Oriskany, which saw service during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, was anchored in Beaumont until her last voyage in March 2006 to Pensacola, Fla. She was carefully sunk offshore from Pensacola in May 2006 as an artificial reef, the largest ship to become home for marine life.
One of the aviators aboard the Oriskany was U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, taken prisoner and held until 1973.
Other castoffs also are riding at anchor in the Neches, including six coastal mine hunters, nestled tightly together like a litter of sleeping newborns.
Once among that class of ships — but not in the Neches — were the USS Pelican, commissioned in 1995 at the Port of Beaumont, and the USS Falcon, commissioned in 1997 at the Port of Port Arthur. The Pelican was sold off to the Greek navy, and the Falcon went to the Republic of China's navy in Taiwan.
The USS Nassau Crewmembers Association made plans for the decommissioning on March 31, 2011, in Norfolk and fired this final broadside at the decision to send her on her way after the ship defended the nation and provided for her sailors for more than 30 years:
"Immediately following the decommissioning, the Nassau will be taken in tow by the USNS Grapple and dragged (begrudgingly while throwing a huge hissy-fit, I hope) to the Inactive Reserve Fleet Facility in Beaumont, Texas."