The next time you drive along Harbor Drive between the airport and Nimitz Boulevard, give a quick salute to the gray Naval frigate parked just beyond the Starbucks at Liberty Station. It will celebrate its 60th birthday next Monday (July 27). To my mind, there’s a good case to be made that it’s the most interesting ship in in our boat-centric city.
Of course there’s also an excellent case to be made that the USS Recruit isn’t a ship at all, but rather a building constructed to look like a Navy ship. Most of what I know about the Recruit comes from a report researched by Mike Ryan, the former president of the San Diego Professional Tour Guide Association (and circulated to the SDPTGA membership). Ryan says the replica (also known as the USS Neversail) was built by the public works department of the San Diego Naval Training Center (NTC), the naval facility that operated here between 1923 and 1997 and made some 1.75 million recruits seaworthy. (Now only the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois serves as the Navy’s boot camp.) Designated Building 460, the USS Recruit was designed to look like a 225-foot-long Destroyer Escort, according to Ryan, but later lengthened by 8 feet and converted into a Training Guided Missile Frigate.
“Its keel is a concrete slab; its hull is sheet metal over wood framing, and its weapons were fabricated out of wood and metal pipes,” Ryan writes. “However, the Recruit did have real berthing for 54 sailors, a head (lavatory), and a shower. It also has many authentic ship parts onboard including waterproof hatches, real Navy rigging (ropes and mooring lines), cleats on which to tie the lines, signal halyards, searchlights, and even an engine order telegraph.” Also onboard were three classrooms, a captain’s quarters, a flag cabin, and a bridge. Recruits trained on the ship learned how to use the equipment and move through the small passages efficiently.
Ryan points out that the pseudo-ship was the third USS Recruit in US Naval history. The first was another land-locked replica, built to look like the Battleship USS Maine and set up in Manhattan’s Union Square during World War I. It was used to recruit some 25,000 men and women into the military (during its 3-year life, its deck was also use to stage a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMD Pinafore, as well as a 1918 boxing match.) The second USS Recruit was a real ship that saw battle during World War II and was finally decommissioned in 1962.
Our local Recruit was one of three such training ships built after the Second World War, according to Ryan. While the two others (the USS Bluejet in Orlando and the USS Marlinespike in Great Lakes, Illinois) eventually were dismantled, the USS Recruit has now been designated a California Registered Historical Landmark.
But its future still seems cloudy, Ryan says. With its sheet-metal sides starting to rust and its rope railings rotting, the Recruit is now under the control of the McMillin Companies (which developed NTC into Liberty Station after the training center was closed). McMillan would like someone else to step up to the job of renovating the frigate, but the most likely candidates (the San Diego Maritime Museum and the USS Midway Museum) have their hands full with other responsibilities. Ryan mentions the Sea Cadets, San Diego Navy Historical Association, and a local shipbuilder’s association as other potential caretaker candidates. Among the challenges looming for anyone who would step up to the caretaking task: the fact that the Recruit wasn’t built to meet the City of San Diego’s building codes (a trifle the Navy didn’t have to be concerned with) and the fact that if it were opened to the public, it would have to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for access. Slapping an elevator next to the old frigate certainly wouldn’t be historical, but it would be all that more eye-catching, no?