April 2007

Aboard San Diego’s Ragged Navy Relic, USS Recruit

By Karen Scanlon

You’ll have to tie-up to see the old girl, and travel along North Harbor Drive, west of San Diego’s international airport. That weathered gray ship is anchored in the dirt.

Abandoned by her crew, USS Recruit is a mere ghost of her glory days as a recruit training “vessel” at the former Naval Training Center San Diego.

 USS Recruit, or Building 430, was the first in an elite fleet of three ships that never sailed. They were not ships at all, but concrete and wood structures created to look like ships. (NTC Orlando and Naval Station Great Lakes have since demolished theirs.)

“The original blueprint for USS Recruit was changed just months before construction,” says Clint Steed, former Company Commander, Recruit Training Command, NTC, and founding member of San Diego Navy Historical Association.

When the two-thirds scale mock-up of a destroyer escort was finally completed, it was 225 feet in length with a 24-foot, four-inch beam. Her mast rose skyward 41 feet. She was rigged with standard Navy fittings retrieved from salvage and mothballed ships.

On July 27, 1949, the non-ship ship was commissioned USS Recruit (TDE-1). Traditional naval shipboard procedures were observed aboard this replica.

“Every recruit called it his first ship,” Steed says. “Most of them had never even seen an ocean. We taught them nomenclature, or ship lingo. Palaces have roofs and floors. Ships have decks and bulkheads.”

USS Recruit was really a school, with classrooms throughout for basic seamanship indoctrination. Sailors were educated in marlinspike seamanship (the collective knowledge of knots, bends, hitches, and splices), ground tackle operation, cargo booms, deck fittings, lifeboat handling, and signal equipment.

“The Navy spends a lot of money to bring in recruits, and it doesn’t want them hurt in the first nine weeks — they want them in a safe environment. USS Recruit offered just that,” Steed says.

In 1954, the training facility of 50,000 recruits annually was “hauled into dry dock” for three months of repair work. But 13 years later, in a military effort to classify the ship from a card-index inventory into a new computer database, a most unusual situation occurred.

“The computer determined that the ship was neither afloat nor tied up ashore. It was not in drydock, nor undergoing repairs or rehauling, not in “mothball,” and was crewless. It had no boilers, or engines, or screws,” writes Mary E. Camacho in her book Cradle of the Navy.

Therefore, nothing by which to classify the ship. And so, it was decommissioned in March 1967, on paper with no fanfare. Her commission pennant removed, sailors continued to train aboard Recruit until 1996, prior to the disestablishment of NTC.

What is to become of the ragged Navy relic that had been reconditioned in 1982 as an up-dated training guided missile frigate (TFFG-1), armed with three-inch wooden guns and depth-charge launcher?

“Ideally, it will be turned into a Navy museum,” says Greg Block, community relations manager, The Corky McMillin Companies. “NTC Foundation has its hands full with other projects; other prospective agencies don’t have the money for renovation. We’ll give her a new coat of paint, at least, so she’ll look like a feature of the new Marriott Courtyard Hotel opening this summer.”

Alas, Recruit remains oddly displaced — this time in the property redevelopment of San Diego’s distinguished naval training facility.