Naval Shipyard closes its log after 195 years
From sailing ships to carriers, it served the nation. Taps and a lowering of the flag marked the end.

By Henry J. Holcomb

The nation's first shipyard is officially closed.

As the bugle notes of Taps echoed off turn-of-the-century buildings at 15 minutes past noon yesterday, in one last Navy ritual, the yard's American flag was lowered.

It was folded by an honor guard of former employees headed by Frank Barbarito, who came to the yard in 1965 when the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard closed and later became its chief engineer.

The flag was then turned over to Mark Isaksen, curator of the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing, which will preserve memories of a shipyard that had built and repaired the nation's fighting ships since 1801.

Then Capt. Jon C. Bergner, the yard's last commander, signed the final entry in its 195-year-old log: ``Secured the watch. Philadelphia Naval Shipyard is closed. No further entries this log.''

He turned around, saluted Vice Adm. George R. Sterner of the Naval Sea Systems Command and in a low voice said: ``Sir, your orders have been carried out. The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard is closed.''

The 1,100-acre base at the foot of South Broad Street, on the Delaware River, is now officially known as the Philadelphia Naval Business Center. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, has a Navy-approved plan to use the area to create a variety of new business and industrial enterprises over the next 30 years.

The Navy will continue to have a major presence at the center. Its Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station, which does problem-solving on ships now at sea and research on vessels that won't be build for 20 years, will continue to employ 1,800 in about 20 buildings.

The submarine propeller shop and ship storage operations also will remain active.

Yesterday was the last day of work for the 300 employees kept on for base-closure chores after the yard's last project, overhaul of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, was finished a year ago.

It was a time of reunion for more than a thousand former workers who turned out for the ceremony. They were among the more than 7,000 who were terminated as the yard's work wound down over the last three years.

The air was filled with talk of families and friends, of jobs found and jobs still sought.

None of the region's politicians showed up.

Many former employees came back from other cities to join the final farewell. Among them was retired Capt. Art Clark, who was commander when the yard became the Navy's most efficient in the late 1980s -- and when the decision to close it was announced in 1991. He is now a management consultant in Charleston, S.C.

Dennis A. Cribben, who worked at the shipyard for 31 years and was its controller at the end, spoke for the workers at the final ceremony. ``Many are not here today because they could not face the emotions . . . the shipyard was more than a job, it was a way of life,'' he said.

He recalled how, when the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy steamed out to sea a year ago, its crew gave the yard an 11-gun salute -- ``the only time that has been done for a shipyard.''

Adm. Sterner, an Ambler native and a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, represented the Pentagon. He said he was ``overwhelmed by a flood of memories and the magnitude of what this yard has contributed to the nation.''

Bergner, in his farewell remarks, said, ``This is not a day we have looked forward to. It is a day we have viewed with dread, but we will not focus on the negatives. We will focus on the contributions of hundreds of thousands of people who worked here.''

William J. Cassidy Jr., who grew up in Philadelphia's Mount Airy neighborhood and is now deputy assistant secretary of the Navy in charge of base closure, recalled the great ships that have been built or repaired here. He named vessels going back to the Navy's largest sailing ship and the mighty battleships of World War II, as well as modern aircraft carriers and destroyers.

After the ceremony, Capt. Bergner and the yard's last master chief petty officer, Don O'Brien, both retired.

Bergner plans to build a house in Hackneck on Virginia's eastern shore, then teach school and coach.

O'Brien hasn't decided whether to take a job here or train to become a physician's assistant in Scranton.

For completing its last project ahead of schedule -- where other closing shipyards had their last projects towed away to be finished elsewhere -- the shipyard received the meritorious unit commendation and Bergner received the presidential Legion of Merit award.

All of the speeches yesterday recalled the yard's history and achievements.

But for many, like Pat D'Amico, the former shipyard production manager who now directs a comprehensive effort to find jobs for her former coworkers, it was mainly a time for shedding tears.

``I'm a mess,'' she said as she retreated to a private corner after the ceremony. Then she quickly added a positive note.

A story about her career transition program in Monday's paper produced telephone calls from 75 to 80 companies offering jobs.

``These were,'' she said, ``the nicest conversations I've had in a long time.''