Two wars, then rust

The Baltimore Sun

It was April 10, 1967, and Jim Beaty was a jug-eared, skinny kid from Memphis, Tenn. - a bit of a screw-up, according to his dad. Yet there he was, 20 years old and improbably charged with saving lives as an operating-room technician aboard the USS Sanctuary, a revamped Navy hospital ship that had just sailed into Danang, Vietnam.

Within hours of the ship's arrival, the first casualties were brought in. A Marine tank had struck a land mine, badly burning the men inside. Beaty still remembers the smell of charred flesh, the looks on the Marines' young faces. He also remembers that his fast-acting crew had most of the wounded on the mend and in the mess hall within 72 hours.

Such extraordinary days were routine for the hundreds of men and women who proudly served on the Sanctuary through two wars. Their history is well documented and sharply remembered. The future of the highly decorated ship, however, is less clear.

For the past two decades, the Sanctu ary has been largely neglected, left to rot in Maryland waters. It was forcibly sold at public auction in 2007, and a federal judge ordered the new owner, Potomac Navigation Inc., to tow it away by Dec. 3 of that year.

But more than 14 months later, the 64-year-old, 522-foot ship still rests in Pier 5 at the Locust Point Marine Terminal in Baltimore, taking up valuable commercial space, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

It's caught in a legal tug of war between Potomac Navigation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company says it envisions a new life for the Sanctuary as a floating hotel or storage facility in Greece. But the EPA worries it will actually become a broken down, illegal, toxic scrap supply.

The EPA has received a court order keeping the ship from leaving the state without costly chemical remediation. The company, in turn, has filed lawsuits against multiple parties, claiming the EPA's concerns are unfounded.

And so the Sanctuary sits, waiting for its fate to wend through the courts. The lingering uncertainty is troubling for veterans like Beaty, who has kept tabs on the Sanctuary's reincarnations through the years.

"The Navy, other than my mother and father, probably made the greatest contribution to the development of my character," Beaty said on a quick November trip to Baltimore from his home in Memphis. "That's part of the reason I continue to be interested in the old girl."

The Sanctuary was built during World War II by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., 80 miles northeast of Baltimore in Chester, Pa. It was commissioned on June 20, 1945, and soon headed for Pearl Harbor, arriving four days after the Japanese surrendered. There the vessel assisted in repatriating prisoners of war evacuated from Wakayama, Japan.

The crew worked "untiringly, hour after hour," the ship's captain wrote in a log excerpted online. They survived two typhoons and tended to hundreds, including 40 children under the age of 10, before the Sanctuary was decommissioned in 1946.

Twenty years later, the Navy towed the vessel to Louisiana and spruced it up, with a new helicopter deck, three X-ray units, a blood bank and several operating rooms, according to the Naval Historical Center.

The ship was then assigned to Vietnam, arriving in Danang on April 10 with its young crew, which included Beaty.

He remembers long days, the constant pace of work, the lost limbs and lives, the games of hearts with his shipmates, the clean white sheets and the air conditioning - a novelty for the Navy when the Sanctuary was built.

His job was mostly below deck, in the operating rooms, away from the sunshine. An entirely different crew lived in the world up top, running the ship, Radioman 3rd Class Kevin Culley among them.

Culley said he has mixed feelings about the war: pride for the work he and his colleagues did, great sadness for those who suffered and died. His first day on the Sanctuary, he met a teenage patient who had joined the Marines using an older brother's identification. He had lost both arms and both legs.

Those Culley served with "will all be heroes in my eyes till the end of my days," said the former crewman, who retired from the New York City Fire Department and lives in Rhode Island.

Culley and Beaty, along with others who served on the ship, have posted messages on, in a section devoted to the Sanctuary, which earned 11 battle stars for its Vietnam War service.

There's "something special" that "causes her shipmates to bond for a lifetime," wrote John Wylie, who served on the ship from 1970 to 1975.

"I'll never forget the ship," wrote Will Thorp, a patient during the Vietnam War.

News stories about the ship's legal woes are also posted there, along with questions about its future.

In its retirement, the ship was put under the care of the U.S. Maritime Administration and eventually sold to a humanitarian group in 1989 for $10 in exchange for a promise to do good. Neither that group nor a successor ever made anything of the ship, and it was ultimately abandoned in the Patapsco River, at the port-owned Pier 5.

Potomac Navigation bought it at auction in 2007.

Its recent woes began after a Seattle environmental group, the Basel Action Network, raised concerns that Potomac Navigation would tow the ship to a developing nation, where it could be sold as scrap for a quick profit, thereby violating regulations that prevent the export of toxic materials.

Like most ships built during the World War II era, the Sanctuary contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The chemicals, which were routinely used to fireproof materials, have since been linked to cancer.

"There was a very real threat of the ship's leaving the dock with the PCBs, and we were very concerned about that," EPA spokeswoman Donna Heron said.

Larry Kahn, an attorney for Potomac Navigation, said the company has tried hard to work with the EPA to come up with an acceptable remediation plan, but that its efforts have been rejected.

He says the government created the PCB problem and bears the responsibility to fix it. Potomac is seeking more than $7 million to pay for remediation, lost revenue and expenses.

The chemicals are "not new problems," said Beaty, who went on to a successful career in real estate after leaving the Navy.

They were there when he served, and he doesn't want them to prevent the ship from further service.

"There's still life in that ship," he said. "I wish people would view it as an asset and an opportunity and not a liability."

a ship's life

1945 The Sanctuary, built in Chester, Pa., was commissioned June 20 and headed to Pearl Harbor as a Navy ambulance ship. It arrived four days after the Japanese accepted surrender terms and was used to repatriate prisoners of war, transporting and caring for the wounded before being decommissioned a year later.

1966 Reacquired and reinstated by the Navy after five years berthed with the National Defense Reserve Fleet, the Sanctuary was modernized with a helicopter deck, X-ray units, a blood bank, an artificial kidney machine and four operating rooms. It was recommissioned in New Orleans with a staff of 316 medical personnel.

1967 Headed out on a new mission, bound for Vietnam, arriving in Danang on April 10 and taking on casualties that afternoon, Marines who were badly burned after their amphibious tank hit a land mine. By the end of the month, more than 700 patients had been admitted on board. The Sanctuary remained in Danang for four years. It was the only U.S. Navy hospital ship off Vietnam by 1970.

1972 Converted into a dependents' hospital and commissary/retail store.

1975 Decommissioned again, the last of the USS-designated hospital ships.

1989 A charitable group, Life International, buys the Sanctuary from the Navy for $10 and brings it to Baltimore with plans to turn it into a medical training facility and save it from being scrapped. The plans never materialize, and the group tries to return the ship to the Navy. But another group, Project Life, intervenes four years later with plans to turn the Sanctuary into a center for recovering female addicts.

1998 Project Life successfully sues the Maryland Port Administration for the right to keep the ship there and convert it into a rehabilitation center.

2001 The port signs a lease with Project Life, allowing it a berth in Locust Point. The lease expires in 2006, the dream never realized and the ship eventually abandoned.

2007 The Sanctuary breaks free of its moorings, leading the Coast Guard to label it "an unacceptable risk to the port of Baltimore." Port authorities ask the Maritime Administration to reclaim the ship, but it refuses, and a judge orders that the Sanctuary be sold at public auction. Potomac Navigation, a company owned by a U.S. citizen living in Greece, according to court records, buys it in October for $50,000. In November, a Seattle environmental rights group says that the Sanctuary contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, thought to cause cancer, and is in danger of being illegally broken down overseas.

2009 The ship sits in the Patapsco River, waiting for a legal resolution to lawsuits filed by the new owner and the EPA.

Sources:, Baltimore Sun research

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