Posted on Monday, May 17, 2010 by Peter Knego
Despite the brilliant sun that morning, an icy wind whirled across the GENERAL JOHN POPE’s upper decks as she began to pick up momentum. The reserve fleet rafts were well off her starboard stern as her masts slid under the Benecia Bridge. It would have been great to just relax and watch the scenery pass by but I knew every moment on the ship called for something new to be documented.
From the upper decks, it was hard not to take endless studies of those oversized, pear-shaped funnels. These almost whimsically proportioned fixtures and the ships’ sharply angled bows with that little upwards flair on the forepeak must have made quite a statement in the mid-1940s.
When it seemed as though I had taken the best study of a particular feature, another shot tantalized. The combination of the ship’s liner-like features, the dramatic effects of rust and peeling paint and the spectacular lighting kept me on my toes.
And then the double span of the Carquinez Bridge neared. This would mark our passage through the Carquinez Strait into San Pablo Bay.
Meanwhile, Frank Cleope was stationed at the Cal Maritime Campus in Vallejo getting the same scene at the same time but from a different perspective.
The wheelhouse and chart room had not seen a live command for over forty years. Some equipment had been removed, presumably as spares for other ships, but much of the paperwork, including a newspaper from 1968, remained untouched by anything but dust.
In the chart room, there were original Federal Shipbuilding builder’s plans and keys to various lockers strewn about.
Blank forms and fire extinguisher tags last marked 1969 were among the detritus of another era. The POPE had so many secrets left to tell and I could only scratch at their surface in the next couple hours.
One form even gave specific instructions on how the ship was to be prepared for decommissioning and layup in 1970.
Although disheveled and ransacked, I was surprised to find so much of the ship’s interior in good condition. Even the captain’s cabin had most of its furnishings and cabinetry intact.
Officers’ accommodation was not unlike standard cabin class accommodation one would find on a liner of the same era, albeit with facilities down the hall.
Various hospital wards occupied a sizable portion of the POPE’s upper decks. Long since stripped of their bedding and equipment, they were studies in linoleum and enameled steel.
Several mess halls and galleys occupied the midships portion of Promenade Deck.
Aside from the piping and duct work cluttering the promenades, they were typically linerlike. It was not hard to imagine the slightly more pastoral trappings of, say, the LEILANI.
Below promenade level, there were clusters of troop accommodation with rows of stacked cots and discarded bedding. Latrines, showers and common sink areas were interspersed between the dormitories.
Further into the ship were cargo holds, galleys and machinery spaces. I even managed to access to the forward engine and boiler rooms, which seemed to be in surprisingly good cosmetic condition.
When I emerged from the lower decks, the POPE was on a southbound course in San Pablo Bay, face to the sun. The tugs were driving her so quickly along, it was easy to imagine what it was like to be on the ship when she ruled her own element. The lighting conditions rewarded every photographic effort, which became all the more hurried as we passed under the Richmond Bridge. The skyline of San Francisco was within sight.
Angel Island next passed off our starboard side. I began to wonder if passersby on this brilliant day realized how extraordinary it was to see a ship like the POPE gliding through the busy Bay.
The Golden Gate, Alcatraz and our last bridge on this short journey, the double suspension span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay, came next.
All too soon, we were within sight of BAE Systems, the POPE’s pit stop before embarking on her very final, loneliest-ever, journey to the breakers. At BAE, she would be drydocked so her keel and hull could be blasted free of all peeling lead-based paints and toxins. The massive outer dock, capable of handling ships much larger than the POPE, began to lower as my fellow linesmen were called back into action. Our sentimental journey was nearing its end.
The lines to the AMERICAN EAGLE and SILVER EAGLE had to be released so the tugs could reposition to maneuver the POPE stern first into the dock.
Gradually, as the POPE made her way into the dock under Bob Brown’s guidance, feeder lines were cast to the longshoremen who then gradually moved them to bollards at the far end of the dock to secure the POPE precisely so that she would settle onto the drydock’s keel blocks.
Once the ship was secured, pumping water out of the dock began. It was time to gather our belongings and step into a metal basket that hoisted us from the stern onto dry land.
As we crossed the yard to the rejoin the AMERICAN EAGLE, there was a chance to take a few hurried photos of the magnificently-proportioned POPE.
By 1:30 PM, the AMERICAN EAGLE was maneuvering on a northeasterly course across the bow of the POPE. It was an amazing experience to be part of the “crew” and to experience some of the final moments of a ship that had a profound impact on many lives.
But the story was not quite over. Not yet, anyway…
End of “Passage On The POPE, Part Two” Sea Treks blog. More text and images to follow…
Special thanks: Bob Brown, Frank Cleope, Martin Cox, Vince Darwood, Mary Ferlin, Mark Goldberg, Erhard Koehler, Doug Satterblom