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An Old Warrior Hangs Tough

Letter From New York


Old salts say ships have lives. If so, the U.S.S. Intrepid has had more than one. Since its launch in World War II as one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers, the hulking vessel has survived numerous perils. Towering over New York Harbor's West Side docks, its grand hull a ghostly gray against the late-summer twilight, the vintage carrier can count many saviors.

First are the sailors who saved her, more than a half-century ago, from hellacious Japanese aerial assaults. Then comes the rich man who, in 1982, rescued the Intrepid from the scrap heap by turning it into a nautical and aerospace museum that draws almost 500,000 yearly. (She is one of three Essex-carrier museums in the country.) And lately, there's the retired Marine general, brought aboard to cure the chronic financial leakage that threatened to sink it.

THE RIGHT MOVE. One of the sailors was Hector Giannasca. The 72-year-old Bronx furniture-factory owner also works as a volunteer tour guide on the Intrepid. Stationed in the below-decks hangar that functions as an exhibit hall, he regales wide-eyed tourists with tales of flames, death, and bravery from before most of them were born. As he stands deep in the metal heart of the vast warship, ringed by visitors in shorts, Giannasca recalls a terrible day in 1944. "Two kamikazes came through right there," he says, pointing to a restored ceiling. The massive fire touched off by the Japanese suicide planes killed 73 American sailors and nearly engulfed the entire ship.

Giannasca recalls shoving helmets and other gear at firefighters, who were scrambling with high-pressure hoses to battle the blaze. The cavernous hangar floor was awash in two inches of water from the hoses. But the flames, fed by airplane fuel, danced atop the water, only getting stronger. Then the officer at the helm got an idea: Lean the 42,000-ton ship hard to port by turning it suddenly, and let the fiery mix of fuel and water pour over the side through open hatches. "It worked," says Giannasca. In all, the Intrepid survived four such attacks.

The ship wouldn't be afloat, though, without the patronage of Zachary Fisher, 86, a New York real estate magnate. His leg injured in a construction accident, Fisher felt bad that he couldn't serve in World War II. So he has become a generous benefactor to the armed forces. He built and runs 28 houses near military hospitals that accommodate service members and their families at no cost when a loved one is undergoing treatment. He also sent $25,000 to each of the families of Americans who died in the Persian Gulf War. And 15 years ago, with the decommissioned Intrepid about to be cut into razor blades and fence wire, Fisher spent a fortune to bring the carrier to New York for a new life as a museum.

HIGH OVERHEAD. For naval and aviation fanciers, the result is a wonderland. Among the flying machines on display down in the hangar--many on loan from the feds--are a Wright Brothers-era biplane, the front section of a 707 jetliner, and a World War II Avenger torpedo bomber. Videos recount the Intrepid's history, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, and George Bush's war years (he flew and crashed an Avenger, though not off the Intrepid).

Above is the 300-yard-long flight deck crowded with such craft as the Vietnam-era Crusader and the high-flying Blackbird spy plane of Cold War fame. These open-air displays are chained to the deck because, after all, planes like to fly and a strong wind might loft them over the side. Across the Intrepid's pier float two U.S. Navy ships that form part of the museum: the destroyer Edson and the submarine Growler, whose cruise missile points ominously toward the Chrysler Building.

Trouble is, all this hardware costs a lot to maintain. The briny air is rough on aging fuselages. And a megabucks replacement is needed for the rubber-coated wooden flight deck that is rotting in spots. Also, insurance premiums are higher than the Blackbird's flight path. Even though its boats aren't about to weigh anchor, the museum requires a maritime policy in case a vessel breaks loose and, say, gets into a fender-bender with the QE II.

The result of the high overhead has been a hemorrhage of red ink ever since the Intrepid opened as a museum in 1982. In the mid-'80s, it was in Chapter 11. The generosity of Fisher, who has ponied up $25 million in gifts to date, and corporate sponsors on the order of American Express Co., which gives $10,000 yearly, hasn't been enough.

So a year ago, the Intrepid enlisted yet another savior: a tough-minded CEO brought in to turn things around. The Intrepid Museum Foundation, which runs the complex, hired Donald R. Gardner, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general. The stolid, no-nonsense Gardner, 59, has made a promising start. The museum booked a tidy $70,000 profit for the fiscal year ending Apr. 30, against a $1.2 million deficit the year before. Gardner began by clamping tight cost controls on the $7 million annual budget, and by shrinking the staff via layoffs to 120 from 135.

SORRY SHAPE. His most controversial move, however, is his plan to cut expenses by paring the 40 planes to 10. "We've got too many," says Gardner as he walks along the flight deck, which is squishy underfoot from a recent rain. He looks with disgust at a broken-down Army Shawnee helicopter. Half its Plexiglas canopy is missing; exposed to the elements, its torn seat covers spew foam rubber. Thus far, he has sent two Korean War Thunderstreak fighters to other homes for display. But reducing the Intrepid's air wing doesn't sit well with some flying buffs and ex-military pilots, who are emotionally attached to the planes.

Still, given the good will surrounding the old carrier, most expect it to become solvent over the long term. One believer is veteran seaman Giannasca. On his tour-guide rounds, he walks through the huge hangar filled with mementos from his past. He pauses to watch the video showing him as a fresh-faced young sailor in a dangerous place. Says Giannasca: "We made it through."By LARRY LIGHT EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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