Houston Chronicle
August 16, 1999
For the love of a sub
Volunteers trying to get Cavalla in ship shape

Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle


GALVESTON -- Joel Staggs has been on temporary assignment in Louisiana for his California-based electronics firm for a month, but he's been spending every minute he can in Galveston. Unlike most visitors to this island resort city, Staggs isn't drawn on the weekend by the beach, the fishing or the picturesque, restored Victorian homes and buildings.

Instead, the former Navy man from San Diego spends his free time in the bowels of the USS Cavalla, a World War II submarine that has been on display at Seawolf Park, on Pelican Island, since 1971. The venerable sub's deteriorated condition has sparked a nationwide restoration effort.

Sitting in the stuffy control room of the dilapidated Cavalla, Staggs, a bearded, 26-year submarine veteran, looks not only completely at home but happy to be there. As he talks about his love of submarines and his respect for the Cavalla, Staggs displays the devotion that veterans around the nation have developed for the vessel.

On its first voyage, in June 1944, the Cavalla sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku, which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It's frustrating to get here and see the condition the boat's in because she was neglected for so many years," said Staggs, 57, an electronics consultant who joined the Navy at 19 and retired 12 years ago. Frustration could hardly describe the reaction among veterans and many others when the Galveston Park Board of Trustees last year considered closing the park where the Cavalla and the destroyer escort USS Stewart are displayed. Local officials talked of giving the Cavalla back to Submarine Veterans of World War II, the national group that sponsored the sub's location in Galveston.

Such talk sent shock waves through veterans' groups across the nation. While local tourism officials noted dwindling numbers of visitors to the submarine, veterans' groups reminded city officials and the public that the Cavalla was placed in Galveston not as a tourist attraction but as a memorial to the more than 3,600 submariners and 52 submarines the nation lost in the war. The public reaction caused an abrupt about-face in city government and resulted in this month's first meeting of the board of the Cavalla Historical Foundation.

The foundation's chairman is Zeb Alford of Katy, who was executive officer on the diesel-powered Cavalla in the 1950s before commanding nuclear submarines. Alford estimates that it will take $500,000 to $600,000 to restore the submarine. Fortunately, Galveston's hot, humid, salty atmosphere has been kinder to the Cavalla's insides than to its outside. In the past few days, workers were to begin removing tons of reinforced concrete that was poured over the submarine's original, teak-slatted deck and steel superstructure to make it easier for visitors to walk topside.

Unfortunately, much of the maintenance on the interior came in the form of corrosion-fighting paint slapped on over the original bronze and stainless-steel fittings. Fixing the deck and superstructure will take $250,000 or more. Restoring the fittings, pipes and bronze torpedo tubes to their original appearance will take more money and lots of elbow grease, volunteers say. "That's where the volunteers come in," said Alford, who owned a gas marketing firm after he retired from the Navy. "If we tried to pay someone to scrape the paint off the inside, we'd never be able to do it. "We're going to put down a complete new deck throughout the whole submarine," Alford said. "The submarine (originally) used to have linoleum squares and things like that, and replacing them will dress it up a lot. "It's going to be completely lighted so that people going through can see all the nooks and crannies," he said. Perhaps most important for the Cavalla's future is that it will be air-conditioned so people can spend as much time as they want exploring in comfort.

"If we can get the grants and donations to get it fixed, it'll look just like it did in World War II," said Richard "Doc" Beeghly, 64. Beeghly, of Galveston, is a retired lawn maintenance company owner who served on diesel submarines from 1958 until 1975. The park board has set aside $50,000 for the project this year, said foundation member Ron Smith, 74, of Spring, a retired automobile factory representative and World War II sub vet.

Another $14,000 in donations has come in already and a major Houston-area foundation, The George Strake Foundation, is set to chip in more than $15,000 when the foundation's nonprofit status gets federal approval, he said. A group of Dallas veterans has been devoting every other weekend to restoring the forward torpedo room to its original sheen. Other individuals and groups, including teen-age Navy Sea Cadets, have been spending time in the effort as well, Beeghly said.

The Cavalla foundation hopes to finish the restoration by April 28, when those who served on the vessel over the years are to hold a reunion in Galveston and celebrate the submarine's revival with people who did the work, Alford said. The controversy over the possible closure of the submarine display has spurred greater public interest, and the number of visitors has increased in recent months, said Renee Adame, assistant park board director.

The board has received kudos from visitors for the restoration effort, and its marketing staff is preparing a photographic and historical information packet about the Cavalla to be sent to Houston-area schools, she said. "We're proposing field trips on the Cavalla," she said, adding that the board staff also is studying the market for veterans' groups that might be attracted to Galveston for reunions or meetings because of the Cavalla memorial. "The board is very impressed with the volunteer efforts," Adame said. "With the foundation established, everything's moving forward to position us to go out to these large foundations for educational or historical preservation grants." The park board has doubled the Cavalla display admission fee to $4 for adults and $2 for children, with the additional money going to the restoration project.

More information about the restoration and the Cavalla's history is available on the Internet at