October 23, 1998, 05:32 p.m.


Scrapping the Cavalla like demolishing the Alamo


TEXAS is a place of interesting and contrasting features: The Lone Star State enjoys a mythical reputation around the world for its cowboys and the Alamo; Texas is renowned as the operational center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that put man on the moon; we have Judge Roy Bean's legend, the mighty Battleship Texas, the Dallas Cowboys and Dwight Eisenhower's birthplace.

In addition, Texas is the resting place of a World War II submarine, the USS Cavalla SS-244.

Many residents of the Galveston-Houston area are only vaguely aware that one of the most storied fighting ships of the U.S. Navy is on public display in their back yard. The Cavalla achieved more in her first war patrol than the Battleship Texas did in 40 years of service. Yet, in comparison to the Texas, the Cavalla is unrecognized and overlooked.

During World War II, the 75-man Cavalla intercepted a large Japanese aircraft carrier and task force on a secret mission to smash the U.S. landings in the Mariana Islands. The Cavalla threaded its way to the center of the enemy ships and sank the Shokaku, one of the aircraft carriers that had launched planes on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Cavalla survived the intense depth charge attack that followed and fought on until the end of the war. The Cavalla was present in Tokyo Bay at the the signing of the surrender documents in 1945.

The Cavalla returned to service in July 1953 and served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression through many of the Cold War years. After 25 years of service, the Cavalla was retired as a war memorial in Galveston's Seawolf Park on Pelican Island. Since 1971, the Cavalla has stood as a reminder of the 52 submarines and 3,617 submariners lost in World War II, the highest mortality rate of any service in the war.

Galveston has profited from the presence of the Cavalla as an attraction but has never allotted significant funds to preserve her. Now her condition is deteriorating. The Galveston Park Board of Trustees says Seawolf Park is losing money and the "naval display" must go to make way for an recreation-vehicle park. Oh yes, a plaque to honor the veterans will be added.

What this really means is scrapping a valuable historic relic as well as a war memorial. Can we allow this? One of the ways societies advance culturally is by retaining strong reminders of their past. The Cavalla was as important to Texas as the Alamo. Would Texans approve demolition of the Alamo for more parking spaces?

I am part of a sizable group of folks who feel the Cavalla must be preserved. I've been to visit the submarine many times since my father took me to see it as a boy. My 9-year-old daughters are fascinated by her. She represents our heritage, our principles and our determination to overcome adversity.

If the park board cannot find a way to raise half-a-million dollars for preservation, then other means must be considered. Loss of the Cavalla would not represent strictly a failure of the park board. It would represent the failure of a community of Americans.

It is no cliché to say we owe our prosperity and freedom to great thinkers and brave soldiers. The men of the USS Cavalla played a significant role in winning World War II at great sacrifice and peril to themselves.

We have been charged with honoring and commemorating their deeds. The measure of honor we reserve for ourselves can be directly related to the success of these efforts.