MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. – With the blare of air horns, cheers and a champagne toast, "The Ship That Would Not Die" returned Wednesday to its home at a maritime museum on Charleston Harbor on the South Carolina coast.
Just after sunrise, the World War II destroyer USS Laffey moved slowly down the Cooper River as it was towed to the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The Laffey was moved more than two years ago to a dry dock so its hull could be repaired at a cost of about $9 million.
A group of about 50 people, including more than a dozen former crew members, gathered on the flight deck of another World War II vessel, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, to welcome the Laffey home.
"This means a lot of years of fighting to get her saved again," said Sonny Walker of Abington, Md., who served on the Laffey in the early 1960s. "This is the third time. The Germans tried to sink her. The Japanese tried to sink her and then she tried to sink herself sitting here. She's whipped them all and she's back again."
The Laffey, built at Maine's Bath Iron Works in 1943, got its nickname as "The Ship That Would Not Die" when it was on picket duty off Okinawa in March, 1945. About 50 Japanese planes attacked and about half got through to the Laffey. The ship suffered 103 casualties when it was hit by four bombs and five kamikaze planes.
The Laffey is also the only surviving American World War II destroyer that saw action in the Atlantic, where it was part of the D-Day invasion. Now designated a national historic landmark, it was decommissioned in 1975 and brought to Patriots Point in 1981.
"It's where I spent my youth. I grew up on that ship," said 85-year-old Lee Hunt of Charleston, S.C., a member of the original crew when it was commissioned "I went on it when I was 17 and spent my 18th birthday killing people in Germany in the invasion of France and right on into Okinawa and the Philippines and what have you. This means a lot. I spent a lot of time on that ship."
He said it was no surprise that, by 1945, the Laffey would encounter suicide attacks by Japanese aviators.
"We knew we were going to get hit. Every destroyer out there on picket duty knew they were going to be attacked," said Hunt, who said he had no time to get nervous because he was on the ship and doing what the crew was asked to do.
The renovation was paid for with a state loan, which the museum plans to repay with operating revenues.
Bringing the Laffey back is not so much about ticket sales for a museum as it is about helping preserve the nation's heritage, said Mac Burdette, the executive director of Patriots Point.
"More than ever we need reminders of what dedication and sacrifice are required if we are going to remain and free and independent nation," he said. "Can we do without the Washington Monument that is going to take millions of dollars to repair from the earthquake? No. There are some things that are just worth paying for and this is part of it."