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She was supposed to be rubble by now, this once-mighty warship moored at a watery chop shop in South Baltimore.

With most of her armored flight deck peeled away, and her weapons and electronics long gone, the USS Coral Sea seems easy prey for torch-wielding workers swarming over the huge gray carcass.

But the fighting lady refuses to go quietly, or easily, to her fate: being turned into automobiles, bathroom pipes or microwave ovens.

"This is not a rusting hulk," says Kerry Ellis, owner of Seawitch Salvage in Fairfield. "She's the most heavily welded ship in the world, and the hardest one we've ever had to dismantle."

The task of carving up the 979-foot-long aircraft carrier began in 1993 and could take another two years, much longer than planned by Seawitch. By contrast, the ship's birth lasted about three years, from keel-laying in 1944 to commissioning in 1947.

The process known as shipbreaking is a noisy and formidable task. Monstrous 230-ton cranes, backhoes and forklifts rumble daily over the now-exposed hangar deck, shredding inch by inch the carrier that once sent jets screaming into combat over Vietnam.

Near-deserted after dark, the ship still creaks and groans.

Watchmen report hearing eerie clanking sounds from deep within the dying vessel.

And some day-shift workers swear they have seen weird shadows that flit from place to place, particularly near the engine room.

"It's a pretty amazing place at night," says Mr. Ellis, moving cautiously down one of the hundreds of gloomy corridors inside Coral Sea. "Great place for a Halloween party."

His flashlight shows some of the debris left behind, flotsam and jetsam from Coral Sea's past: water-stained letters and postcards from loved ones; a few foreign coins; several racy paperbacks; and a snapshot of man's best friend.

Most everything else is gutted or gone.

All that's left is the mighty gray ghost, headed grudgingly to industrial doom.

"She's not going easily, is she?" says Herman Doernbach, 65, of Milwaukee, who served aboard Coral Sea as an electrician's mate in the 1950s. "I'm not surprised. She was a massive ship, full of noise and bustle.

"Gunnery practice was loudest of all. We could even hear it in the bowels of the ship. It was like putting your head in a mess pot, while someone rapped on it with a spoon."

Nearly 40 years after leaving Coral Sea, Union R. Mills Jr. still remembers the roar of takeoffs and landings from one of the largest floating airports to ever put to sea.

"The planes were awful noisy coming in," says Mr. Mills of Grandy, N.C. "They'd snag that arresting gear and drag it out, cables screeching. It was something else for those of us with bunks beneath the flight deck."

Nowadays, several families of doves are building nests where sailors once slept.

Nicknamed "Ageless Warrior," the Coral Sea served on active duty for 42 1/2 years and made a career of steaming to trouble spots: Suez in 1956, Vietnam in 1965 (one of many trips there), Nicaragua in 1983, Libya in 1986 and Lebanon in 1989.

Built at Newport News, Va., the carrier exceeded the length of three football fields, displaced 65,000 tons when fully loaded and had a top speed of 33 knots.

Coral Sea was named for a pivotal 1942 naval battle, when a small American force stopped a Japanese thrust toward Australia. It was history's first carrier vs. carrier fight in which aircraft, not naval cannon, were the main weapons. The ship was modernized several times, including an extensive refit completed 1984 during the Reagan administration's buildup of the Navy.

TTC Coral Sea carried up to 75 aircraft, had missiles and rapid-fire guns for self-defense, and was operated by a crew of about 4,000, including aviation personnel.

The vessel belonged to the Midway class, the first true super carriers -- so large that they could not pass through the Panama Canal.

Starting in 1949, Coral Sea and her two Midway classmates were made ready to carry atomic bombs and thus became the "world's first warships with a nuclear strike capability," says the reference series "Jane's Fighting Ships."

Because of shrinking Navy budgets, Coral Sea was decommissioned in May 1990 and put in storage, as part of the "mothball fleet." In 1993, the Navy sold the carrier for scrap, minus her electronics, weapons and other usable equipment, and the ship was towed to Baltimore.

"The first time I saw her, I thought: What an amazing ship," says Mr. Ellis, the salvage dealer. "Being in my business, I thought it would be great to cut her up."

Mr. Ellis, a former Marine, says Coral Sea was purchased for $750,000 by a New York corporation, which hired Seawitch for the dismantling.

He expects the scrap metal and other remains to bring about $6 million. Roughly 98 percent of the vessel will be recycled, down to the brass fuse boxes.

Miles of silver cable lie on the hangar deck in giant coils, awaiting orders. The flight deck is going to steel mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Though power has been cut off to much of the vessel, there still is enough electricity pulsing from Coral Sea's own generators to light a small city.

"We need the ship's power to cut it apart," says Mr. Ellis, who, in effect, has turned Coral Sea against itself.

As he leads visitors around, past the deserted barber shop and the peeling officer's mess, his commentary shows a fondness for the ship that was home to more than 70,000 seamen, some of whom have asked him for mementos.

He complies, whenever possible.

He mailed a chunk of the flight deck to a Michigan man who served as a pilot aboard Coral Sea, and a plaque from the hospital went to a former medic, now a Baltimore physician.

"I can understand how people feel about her," says Mr. Ellis. "They lived on this ship 24 hours a day, for years at a time.

"Look at this!" he says excitedly, shining his flashlight on a wall deep inside the vessel.

L It's a five-foot mural of Coral Sea, done by one of her own.

The painting won't go down with the ship, says Mr. Ellis, who hopes to cut the mural out and preserve it in plastic.

He plans to keep the anchor too, all 40,000 pounds of it, as a lawn ornament for the front of his office.

The anchor chains will be sold to private ship owners, along with anything else on Coral Sea that isn't bolted down -- and some of the things that are.

"If I can sell the hatch doors, I'll do it," says the salvage dealer.

=1 "When we finish, there will be nothing left."

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