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Veterans seek help in keeping Liberty Station’s deteriorating 52 Boats Memorial on eternal patrol

Flags fly over a portion of the 52 Boats Memorial at NTC Park at Liberty Station in Point Loma.
(Courtesy of 52 Boats Memorial Veterans)

The monuments to submariners and their subs lost during World War II have been damaged by weather, vandalism and even their own construction and several are ‘in dire need of replacement.’

It took 14 years for the 52 Boats Memorial — a series of monuments dedicated to those who served on U.S. submarines in World War II — to be completed at Liberty Station’s NTC Park in spring 2010. It was meant to last forever.

But forever has turned into less than a dozen years.

The monuments have been damaged by weather, vandalism and even their own construction. Douglas Smay, who originally proposed the memorial in 1995, is now searching for someone to help with repairs and replacement.

The 52 Boats Memorial is meant to honor more than 3,500 submariners and their subs lost during WWII.

The San Diego chapter of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II had about 300 members when work on the memorial began in 1996. By the time it was unveiled in 2010, only about 100 remained.

The project took so long because of delays developing the park on the former site of the Naval Training Center in Point Loma, along with fundraising and other planning.

Smay is the sole survivor of the now-disbanded chapter of the WWII group. A former submariner, Smay served in the early 1960s.

Since the markers’ installation, at least 16 have had to be replaced or repaired. The cost has exceeded $31,000.

Smay said the original monuments continue to degrade and several are “in dire need of replacement.”

Several markers at the 52 Boats Memorial need extensive repair or replacement.
Whether damaged by weather, vandalism or decay, several markers at the 52 Boats Memorial need extensive repair or replacement.
(Courtesy of Point Loma Association)

“Initially, when the memorial was new, we had problems with lawnmower strikes. There were also other types of vehicles that would run into the monuments and damage them,” Smay said.

But as time went by, another type of damage began to occur.

Smay said the monuments aren’t solid pieces but instead are constructs glued together with epoxy. Over time, the epoxy hardened and cracked, causing the glued pieces to fall apart.

About five years ago, Smay formed the 52 Boats Memorial Veterans organization in an effort to continue maintenance of the monuments.

Its solution to the damaged and degraded markers has been to replace them with concrete replicas.

“Unfortunately, we have encountered problems with the process,” Smay said. “The first was that we lost a key member of our organization, Warren Branges, my good friend and shipmate, who passed away in May.

“The second was that the company making the concrete replacement monuments went out of business. I am attempting to recover the molds used to cast the concrete monuments so I can find another company to continue the process.”

Visitors look over the names of lost crew members at the 52 Boats Memorial.
(Courtesy of 52 Boats Memorial Veterans)

Replacing the rest of the markers is estimated to cost $56,000, but Smay said the problem isn’t the money.

“We have the funds to replace the damaged monuments and have replaced a number of them already,” he said. “But we need someone who can make concrete and use the molds.”

Ideally, the person or business also would be able to deliver and install the heavy monuments, he said.

Almost all of the $250,000 raised initially to establish the memorial came from private parties, especially WWII submariners, Smay said.

“These guys, by and large, were enlisted men, distinctly middle class, not wealthy. They gave an amazing amount of money to build this thing,” he said. “They gave so much because it meant so much to them. And they were so unbelievably proud of it.”

The 52 Boats Memorial begins at the corner of Cushing and Roosevelt roads. The plaza area includes a parallel sidewalk on either side. There are 26 monuments per sidewalk. Together, they make up the 52 Boats Memorial, with each marker representing a sunken submarine.

One of the monument plaques at the 52 Boats Memorial at Liberty Station honors lost World War II submarine USS Bullhead.
(Courtesy of 52 Boats Memorial Veterans)

Originally, the monuments were laser-etched, but they quickly faded. The process was changed so the words and images are now printed on a high-pressure laminate plaque attached to each monument.

Each plaque includes the name and image of a submarine, when it was launched and when it was lost, the commanding officer, the history of the sub, the circumstances of its loss and the names of the lost crew members.

In some cases, the crew survived and the boats were destroyed to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

During World War II, submarines had a 20 percent loss rate. Most of those lost went down with all hands on board. On the other hand, U.S. submarines sank 201 Japanese warships and 1,113 Japanese merchant ships during the war.

“Generally speaking, after the fifth patrol, most subs were on borrowed time,” Smay said. He said his father, Howard Smay, a WWII submarine veteran who died in 2009, survived 11 war patrols.

Smay noted a couple of additional monuments, one that lists all the submarines lost before and after WWII and another that lists subs that survived but someone in the crew didn’t. That monument has more than 100 names, including a Medal of Honor winner.

“Memorials like this one are hallowed ground. ... This is a physical place where family members and loved ones can come. They often have no place else to go.”

— Douglas Smay, 52 Boats Memorial Veterans

Another monument can be found at the far end of the rows, in the middle of the Hugh Story Memorial Rose Garden.

Hugh Goodman Story Sr. was a Navy veteran and reservist who served in World War II. He earned a Bronze Star with Combat V Citation for acts of valor. For 24 years, he volunteered in Point Loma, leading weekly beautification projects and planting hundreds of trees and flowers.

Though the memorial markers are kept up by the veterans group, the Point Loma Association’s “Mean Green Team” cleans and maintains the landscaping around the monuments. It also puts Christmas wreathes on each one during the holiday season.

The 52 Boats Memorial Veterans organization maintains the memorial's monuments.
The 52 Boats Memorial Veterans organization maintains the memorial’s monuments, while the Point Loma Association maintains the landscaping around them.
(Courtesy of Point Loma Association)

At the memorial dedication in 2010, it was noted that the submarine monuments are important because many of the fallen aren’t resting in cemeteries.

“During the war, in many cases submarines were the only weapons the U.S. had. They generally went behind enemy lines by themselves or in small ‘wolf packs’ of two or three and kept to strict radio silence for the entirety of their 60-day patrols,” Smay said.

“The Navy often wouldn’t know what happened to the subs and crews until the end of the 60 days. In many cases, the submarines were never found. The boats became the tombs for these men.”

Crew members lost in battle are said to be “on eternal patrol.”

This “digger hat,” seen on a monument at Liberty Station, was part of the “uniform” worn by World War II submarine veterans.
(Courtesy of 52 Boats Memorial Veterans)

For each marker, a flag is flown on the anniversary of the day the sub was lost. Flags are placed on each of the monuments for Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

“Memorials like this one are hallowed ground,” Smay said. “We frequently find flowers and notes left on the markers. This is a physical place where family members and loved ones can come. They often have no place else to go.”

“The motto of the people who built the memorial was to keep alive the memory of our shipmates on eternal patrol,” Smay added. “But in a larger sense, the memorial now commemorates ... the men who built it. They are my heroes — they gave so freely of their time and treasures. To be a part of it is so very meaningful to me.”

Smay noted that the memorial’s website, 52boatsmemorial.com, hasn’t been updated in more than 10 years and that he’s also looking for someone to take on that role.

For more information about the restoration project, write to 52 Boats Memorial Veterans, 2960 Chicago St., San Diego, CA 92117, call (619) 276-8999 or email dcsmay@san.rr.com.

The veterans group is a nonprofit corporation and all donations go to maintenance of the memorial.


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