Bonner, Kit

The City of Galveston hosts a most interesting memorial ship complex that boasts a famed wreck, a unique submarine and a very rare war-built destroyer-escort

Pelican Island: Home of a destroyer escort, an attack submarine, and a concrete tanker sunk in Pelican Flats. Pelican Island is a spit of land within the harbor of Galveston, Texas, and has typical Gulf of Mexico weather – often hot and humid. And, in 1925, a WWI experimental concrete oil tanker was left in the shallows or Pelican Flats adjacent to Pelican Island. The SS Selma was one of twelve such ships built for an estimated $50 million (all twelve ships) due to the lack of steel for shipbuilding during the late war years (1918 -1919). The concrete ship was one of those ideas that sounded good at the time, but in reality was far ahead of its time. Misfortune seemed to plague most of these vessels, and it did not spare the Selma. In May 1920, the new tanker struck bottom on the south jetty in the harbor at Tampico, Florida. She was brought back to Galveston for repair; however, the shipyard was unable to work with concrete. Consequently, the ship was stripped of all of its valuable parts, and the hulk was scuttled off Pelican Island in 1922, where her hull is still visible.

In 1974, the former USS Cavalla (SS-244) was acquired and embedded on land, now known as Seawolf Park, as a museum ship. A tract of Pelican Island was named Seawolf Park in honor of the American submarine USS Seawolf(SS-l97) lost in October 1944 during WWII. The next exhibit to arrive was the Edsall-class destroyer escort, USS Stewart (DE-238), which has also been landlocked. Landlocking these steel-hulled ships will help them to be preserved for decades to come.

Seawolf Park has some of the most novel and wellmaintained examples of WWII, Korean War and Cold War US Navy vessels. The park also has a three-story pavilion for those who wish to observe the harbor, and the island is a popular fishing spot. For those who just want to watch shipping and the workings of a harbor, Seawolf Park is the perfect location.


Many people think that Jean Lafitte, the famous pirate or privateer operated exclusively out of the swamps and bayous near New Orleans. He and his band of cutthroats were there from 1810 up through 1817, but then they were told to leave by the US Navy. Despite assisting in the defeat of the British in the War of 1812, the “King of Barataria” had committed too many crimes and could no longer be tolerated. His next relocation was to Galveston and Pelican Island, which he dubbed “Compeche,” or his kingdom.

He merely took over a slab of territory and proclaimed his sovereignty. This area had been a more traditional port for lower class pirates, but Lafitte’s presumption was too much for the US government. In 1821, the US Navy gave him 24-hours to get out or be destroyed. He chose to burn down the settlement, and stole away in the night – never to be heard of again on American soil. However, there will always be the rumors of Lafitte’s treasure being buried in the vicinity. So far, no one has come up with a treasure map where “x” marks the spot. For the next 120-years, the most exciting tenants were the Texas Navy, the Capital of the Republic of Texas and ultimately, Pelican Island was the site of an immigration station, and a United States Life Saving Station. As for Galveston, it became a city in the State of Texas.

In September 1900, a storm of unimaginable proportions swept over Pelican Island and Galveston and nearly erased them from the face of the earth with winds over 135-mph. Extensive rebuilding had to take place to restore these areas, as well as wholesale repopulation. Most of the residents (12,000 estimate) were drowned. Steps have been taken to prevent a reoccurrence of the damage resulting from hurricanes, yet Hurricane Katrina in 2004 was a severe test. The park and its exhibits survived.


In 1918, the Allies were desperate for tankers and cargo ships of any kind. The shortage of steel due to warship construction caused the US government to contract for 24 reinforced concrete ships (cargo and tanker). However, only twelve were built, and only one is still afloat. The tanker SS Peralta is currently part of a floating log boom in British Columbia. The others have either disappeared or are in the backwaters of various harbors.

The Selma displaced 13,000-tons full load and was 420-ft long with a 54-ft beam. The shale aggregate tanker was built in Mobile, Alabama, yet was too late for service in WWI. She was launched on 28 June 1919, and was employed in the Gulf area. Her end came as the result of striking bottom on the South Jetty of Tampico, Florida’s harbor, on 11 May 1920, with less than a year of service. The crack in the hull could not be repaired locally, so the tanker was brought to Galveston for permanent repair.

Bringing the leaking concrete ship to Galveston was not the best idea either – the dry-dock would not accommodate the ship, and work on aggregate hulls requiring a rotary kiln to dry could not be done in this port. As there were hundreds of new ships laid up, it was not as if the nation had a crying need for the Selma. She was stripped of all metal fixtures, and then a channel was dredged 1500-ft long through Pelican Flats to a depth of 25-ft. On 9 March 1922, the hulk was towed to the limit of the channel and anchored. There she has sat and sits today -just east of Pelican island.


In 1971, the local Submarine Veterans became aware that the Gatoclass submarine, the USS Cavalla (SS-244), could be acquired from the Navy as a donation. After the necessary paperwork was completed, the famous submarine was turned over to the Veterans for emplacement in Seawolf Park. The Park had been created at about the same time and was named after another submarine, the USS Seawolf (SS-197). The Seawolf was a Sarg-oclass submarine and had been lost on 3 October 1944 during a hedgehog attack.

In 1971, the famous WWII attack submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) could be a part of Seawolf Park and dedicated to submariners everywhere.

What gave the Cavalla its fame was the fact that its maiden attack cruise netted one of the six carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor – the IJN Shokaku.

This carrier was part of a major Japanese task force that was attempting to make a decisive comeback against the American fast carriers near the Marianas. What happened was the wildly successful destruction of Japanese Naval aviation – “the Marianas Turkey Shoot.” American carrier pilots devastated the Japanese task force based on information transmitted by the Cavalla which had also fired six torpedoes at the 30,000-ton+ carrier. Luckily, three of the torpedoes struck the 844-ft long Shokaku and she went down on 19 June 1944 north of Yap Island. What a score for a brand-new submarine!

Eventually, the Cavalla sank some 34,160-tons of enemy shipping during the war.

After WWII, the Cavalla was modified as a hunter-killer submarine (SSK) to ferret out and destroy Soviet long-range submersibles. Next, the boat was returned to its original designation (SS) or attack submarine. In its final configuration, the Cavalla spent the six-years of active service as an auxiliary submarine (AGSS) eventually; the 311-ft long boat was decommissioned on 30 December 1969. Next stop was Seawolf Park on Pelican Island.


Within three-years (1974), the Submarine Veterans found another vessel for Seawolf Park which the Navy found to be no longer suitable for fleet service. Actually, a marine survey was done on the ship, and she was found unfit for the Naval service.

The Navy commissioned the USS Stewart (DE-238), after the destroyer escort was completed on 31 May 1943. The Edsall-class was a 1590-ton full load ocean escort with a length of 306-ft and beam of 36-ft. As built, this class was powered with four geared diesels (Fairbanks-Morse Model 38D81/8) producing 6000-shp. The top speed was 21-kts. The armament consisted of three 3-in/50 caliber open mount guns; a triple 21-in torpedo tube mount; and 20 and 40mm antiaircraft weapons. For ASW, there were two stern racks and a hedgehog projector forward. The Stewart took the name of the flush deck destroyer USS Stewart (DD-224) which had been lost in February 1942. The DE’s career included convoy escort, submarine hunting, and training. In 1947, the Stewart was decommissioned and remained in one reserve anchorage or another until 1 October 1972.

The Submarine Veterans and State of Texas promised to give the Siewart a good home in Seawolf Park, and on 25 June 1974, the destroyer escort became landlocked with the Cavalla. Together, they make a rather odd couple, but for the visitor, they will learn firsthand about submersibles that prey on surface ships, and specially fitted out surface ships that seek to destroy submersibles.

For some time, the Stewart has needed sandblasting and a new exterior paint job. That has been arranged for, and soon both ships will be Bristol fashion.


In 150-years, Pelican Island (there are really pelicans there) had gone from a lookout for pirate enemies to a rather famous outdoor museum for the Submarine Veterans; the location of a rare destroyer escort (circa WWII); a sunken, but recognizable concrete tanker from WWI, and dozens of fishermen trying every method possible to catch fish. Plans include an indoor museum which will display submarine and ASW equipment. There is an avid interest in the park and the ships as more and more visitors take the drive to Pelican Island from Galveston.

As of 13 April 2007, the Burke Family Trust granted $1 million to the Cavalla Historical Foundation. The funds come from the Burke Charitable Trust which was established in 1994, and Jim Burke served aboard three submarines including the USS Cavalla. This grant will enable the full restoration of the Cavalla and the destroyer escort Siewart. It will also fund the planned visitor’s center.

This gift will ensure a legacy that needs to be preserved.

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Jul 2007

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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