USS Slater Opens For 22nd Tour Season In Albany
The USS Slater at the Destroyer Escort Museum opened for its 22nd tour season in Albany, New York this week. I toured the World War II vessel as volunteers prepared for the new season.
Stepping onto the USS Slater, you’re walking back the clock. The nearly 75-year-old destroyer escort is a maze of World War II memorabilia, cots, maps, and heavy machinery. It’s also a tight squeeze – it’s hard to imagine more than 200 sailors and naval officers once shared this space. But Executive Director Tim Rizzuto says that’s very “Navy” – every inch of space was used, multiple times over.
"My favorite statistic about these ships was the allowance of space per man on a Navy ship in World War II was one-sixth of what the Bureau of Prisons said a prisoner had to have at a shore-side penitentiary," Rizzuto says. "Going to sea was like being in jail, except you could drown too.”
Named for Frank O. Slater, a fallen sailor from Alabama, the ship was commissioned in 1944 to protect convoys of Allied forces and supplies going across the Atlantic and Pacific from Nazi U-Boats and Kamikaze attacks. It was decommissioned in 1951, took the name “Aetos,” and transferred to the Hellenic Navy in Greece, where it underwent 3,223 voyages and 40 years of wear and tear. When then-Mayor Jerry Jennings brought the ship to Albany in 1997, it was almost unrecognizable. The Destroyer Escort Sailors Association incorporated the not-for-profit Destroyer Escort Museum to restore the Slater to its 1944 condition, and establish it as an educational platform for tourists and youth groups. Gary Sheedy has been one of the many volunteers restoring the Slater, room by room, ever since.
“As you can hear [the volunteers are] chipping paint – that’s a big thing to try to get the paint on the main decks. But all the lighting that you see through the ship, that was all florescent when the Greeks had it," Sheedy explains. "We went down to the Mothball Fleet, cut the old lights out, brought ‘em back, reinstalled ‘em, rewired – so just about everything on this ship that you see today is in original condition.”
“Mothball Fleet” is another name for a Naval reserve fleet. They’re intended for reactivation in case of emergency, but often collect dust until scuttled, scrapped, or used for target practice. They can also be a good source of parts, and every bit of the Slater not there in 1944 was replaced with an identical spare. Rizzuto says the environmental movement, which mandated older ships remediate their hazardous materials before scrapping, actually helped the Slater’s restoration.
“The cost of remediation was such that there was no money to be made in the scraps," Rizzuto explains. "So the ships just lay around at the anchorages for about 20 years longer than they should have, and that window gave us the time to go down and get all these parts that we needed, so that really worked in our favor.”
Today, the Slater’s engines are non-operational, but it’s the only destroyer escort of its kind still afloat in America. It closes during the winter for maintenance, but remains moored along the Hudson at the intersection of Broadway and Quay streets year-round. The museum says it’s one of the most historically accurate World War II ships in the world. Old photos of loved ones that the ship’s captain kept on his desk are still in his quarters – and a painting of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners, sits in the chart room.
“And I don’t know how that managed to survive, but that apparently stayed on the ship when it decommissioned in Greece, made the trip across the Atlantic, and we found it – and maybe that’s why this ship has had such good fortune," Rizzuto says. "But St. Nicholas has been with us the whole time.”
On deck, in addition to Swiss 20 millimeter Oerlikon guns, the ship’s wooden whale boat is one of 26,000 built between 1917 and 1956 still operational. Rizzuto jokes it might be worth more than the Slater itself.
“This came with the ship when it came back from Greece, so we’re assuming it’s the ship’s original whale boat," Rizzuto notes.
Of course, the Slater didn’t get here without a lot of work. Rizzuto says the Slater sees about 15,000 volunteer hours a year, and as a result, today’s efforts are centered on maintenance, not restoration. Next year, a $200,000 Maritime Heritage Grant will fund a new paint job for the ship’s bottom, and repairs to its mast and rigging. Rizzuto says the ship itself is a perfect example of what the United States is capable of when it comes together in times of crisis.
“When you look at the overall shipbuilding program, the fact that a ship like this was built in about six months – and then the fact that we built 563 of these in a two-year period of time – it’s amazing," he says.
The USS Slater is open for paid tours Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through November. In addition to individual and group tours, the museum also offers overnight youth group “camping” on the Slater and space for Naval reunions.