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Rust threatens to mothball Science Center's Requin submarine

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By Sam Spatter and Rachel Weaver
Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012

Lee Bookwalter knows it takes a special type of person to serve aboard a submarine.

The Navy veteran spent five years aboard the USS Pargo in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"It's very difficult to explain to somebody who's never been on a submarine what the camaraderie is like," said Bookwalter, 58, of Plum. He is a member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania chapter of U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc., known as the Requin Base.

Now the organization's namesake is in need of repair -- maybe up to $2 million worth.

The USS Requin, one of the most popular attractions at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore, is showing its age. The exterior of the World War II-era submarine, which attracts about 160,000 visitors annually, has rusted below the water level, the elements gnawing several holes.

Science Center officials are quick to say there is no danger that the sub will sink, and visitors are still welcome.

"But we want to correct the problem as quickly as we can," said Ann Metzger, co-director of the center.

To that end, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County on Friday approved a $125,000 grant from the Allegheny County Community Infrastructure & Tourism Fund to begin determining the damage.

"We will use the funds to conduct an official maritime assessment of the situation, as well as for engineering work, to determine what needs to be done," Metzger said.

Although the Navy annually inspects the sub, moored on the Ohio River, it does not have money to conduct the assessment, she said, which may not occur until spring.

Once center officials have an idea of the scope and cost of repairs, they will begin fundraising, said Ron Baillie, center co-director. Repairs could cost as much as $2 million.

The Navy launched the submarine on New Year's Day 1945. Commissioned as a standard fleet submarine in April before joining the Pacific Fleet, the Requin did not see active duty during World War II. But the vessel was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the war ended in August that year.

Its journeys and missions took it from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic Circle and the Mediterranean Sea before it was decommissioned in 1968. The sub served for training until 1971, according to the Requin's biography on the Science Center website.

Eventually acquired for display in Tampa, the Requin has been in Pittsburgh since 1990, educating thousands about undersea Navy life, service and technology from more than 50 years ago. Visitors can see everything from how its crew submerged the sub, to how cooks used a tiny kitchen to feed servicemen, to the cramped bunks in which they slept.

Baillie helped oversee its voyage from Tampa, up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, 20 years ago.

"It is the farthest a submarine has ever been taken inland in the world," he said. "It was no small task at all."

Since then, 3 million people have toured the Requin. Submarine veterans, some of whom served in World War II, work to keep it "as shiny and new as it was when it first launched," Baillie said. A Science Center study conducted last year showed the sub ranked among the top visitor experiences.

"It's a chance to see and experience something really different and new," Baillie said.

Repairs could be made on a dry dock at Neville Island. Baillie said another option is to make the repairs in place by installing an underwater sea wall and pumping out the river water. That way, visitors could watch the progress.

Baillie said there are no chemicals or unusual substances in the river affecting rust progress. Saltwater is far more damaging for the sub.

"It's normal deterioration," he said.

Bookwalter said fixing the problem is of utmost importance to local submarine veterans. The Requin Base holds a ceremony each Memorial Day weekend, during which members toll a bell for each boat lost during service.

"(The Requin is) basically our namesake," Bookwalter said. "It's gone a long way in helping veterans find us."

Huey Dietrich, commander of Requin Base, called the submarine a "living monument."

"It is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh," he said. "People in Pittsburgh love it."

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