Sonny Walker, who served on the USS Laffey for three years in the early 1960s, remembers when in 2009 he was summoned to Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant on reports that corrosion was threatening to sink the once-mighty ship.
"We saw the video from the divers, and we just all started to cry," said Walker, of Baltimore. "We just knew she was dead then."
But on Wednesday morning, the Naval destroyer that saw conflict at Normandy on D-Day and later at Okinawa in the Korean War, was tugged under the Ravenel Bridge and nudged into a new birth at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum.
"It's a great day," said Walker, who is president of the Laffey Association. "Look at the sun and the sky … the Lord is shining down on us to bring the ship back."
Slaps on the back and tears were plenty between Patriots Point officials and Navy veterans who served on the Laffey and ships like her.
"You see all these guys with tears in their eyes, and it's because there aren't many ships like her left," said Robert Gebo of West Ashley, who served on the USS Cotten, a Fletcher-class destroyer. "Most of the ships are razor blades now."
See a video of the submarine Clamagore being moved to make way for the Laffey.
For Walker, Gebo and other Navy vets, the ships are their hallowed ground and worth preserving because of their links to history.
"If you say that we should just take these ships out and sink them, well why not build houses on Gettysburg or throw condos up on Fort Sumter," Walker said.
Not an easy journey
Getting the Laffey back to Patriots Point had a hefty price tag. The museum financed the repairs, necessary due to years of saltwater attacks on its thin steel hull, with a $9 million state loan.
Transporting the vessel, moving the WWII-era submarine Clamagore to make way for it, and repairs to the central pier that blocked its passage, all cost about $1.1 million, said Mac Burdette, Patriots Point executive director
"There's a lot of relief today, having those two vessels where they need to be," Burdette said, referring to the Laffey and Clamagore. "But that was the sexy work, there's still lots of work to be done."
Crews need to now replace a 60-foot section of the central pier that leads to the USS Yorktown, and all the utilities must be reconnected, Burdette said. That's got to be done by Friday when a Boy Scout troop is scheduled to camp on the Yorktown.
And then there is the pressing issue of repairs to the Yorktown, which reports indicate has extensive damage due to the same corrosion that nearly sank the Laffey.
Patriots Point is studying the damage to that aircraft carrier as it charts a multi-year plan to emerge from a mire of financial struggles and an aging fleet of exhibits.
"There's a sense of accomplishment today, because we get a chip on our shoulders, because it seems like people are pulling against us sometimes," Burdette said. "But we're trying to get past that."
The museum is seeing some of its best financial numbers in years, thanks to promotions and concerts held at the facility, Burdette said.
A recent "pay-what-you-can" weekend earned the facility $10,000 more than it had for the same weekend a year earlier. Four thousand people visited the Mount Pleasant attraction then.
"The people of South Carolina in 1975 said they wanted a Naval and maritime museum here, and so that's our mission," Burdette said. "And we're making money every day and trying to find solutions to our long-term issues."
The facility re-opens to the public on Saturday, though the Clamagore and Laffey won't be accessible for some time as crews install gangways and return exhibits to the Laffey.
An official return ceremony for the Laffey is planned for April on the 67th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, where 32 Laffey sailors were killed.