27 July 2023 — Sailing on a “Make-Believe Sea”—the Training Ships of the US Navy


This summer saw the opening of a new museum: The public can now tour the inside of USS Recruit at the former site of the San Diego Naval Training Center, now a commercial space called Liberty Station. An immersive display populated with videos, photos, historic plans and memorabilia tells the story of the ship, from her construction and christening in 1949 to her decommissioning in 1997. But there’s a funny thing about Recruit—she hasn’t moved an inch in all that time. Her steadfastness was a theme in her Log Book entry of New Years’s Day, 1963, penned by Chief Boatswain’s Mate George E. Johnson, USN; here is an excerpt:

Six hawsers to starboard,

Seven hawsers to port,

Starboard chain to Buoy 1,

We're really held taut.


Concrete and Black-top

Her make-believe sea,

She strains her moorings

In a ten-knot breeze.


Draft nine feet forward

Ten feet aft,

It's never change

on this Naval craft.

Recruit is a stationary training ship, originally modeled after a Dealey-class destroyer, but at 2/3 scale. Her mission was to train new recruits in seamanship, in an environment that would feel “real.” USS Recruit was a commissioned US Navy ship— except for that awkward period beginning in March of 1967, when the Navy’s indexing system rejected Recruit entirely because she didn’t fit into any of the system’s classifications. Her commission was restored in the 1980s, and her career extended until the training center's closure. 

Photo: RSM Design for Environmental Graphic Design and Placemaking and Allison Richter Photography.

Probably the first “dummy ship” was an earlier vessel of the same name, constructed in 1917. New York City was behind on its recruiting targets to meet the needs of the First World War, so the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense coordinated with the US Navy and came up with the idea of building a “warship” in Union Square. Designed by Jules Guerin and Donn Barber, the reduced-scale wooden ship performed several functions. New recruits were trained on the equipment on deck, prospective recruits were processed in the office space and physical examination rooms below, and the general public was encouraged to become acquainted with the workings of the ship. Popular Science magazine reported: 

Within the ship are spacious waiting rooms for recruits and applicants, physical examination rooms both fore and aft, officers’ quarters, shower baths, a big air washer and ventilating device which changes the temperature ten times every sixty minutes, and numerous other accommodations for officers and men. The superstructure of the vessel consists of a forward cabin, main bridge, flying bridge, conning tower, two masts fifty feet above the quarterdeck, and a single smokestack eighteen feet above the cabin top. Six wooden guns, representing fourteen-inch naval guns, extend seventeen and a half feet beyond the turrets and make up the main battery. The secondary battery consists of ten wooden five-inch guns and two models of one-pound breech-loading rifles.

To further public interest in the ship, she also served as a social and entertainment space, hosting vaudeville shows and even boxing matches on the weather deck. Recruit of 1917 had a short, but stellar career; her district enlisted 25,000 new sailors. By 1920, however, recruiting needs in peacetime were less urgent and it was announced that the ship would be dismantled and reassembled in Coney Island, but after her removal from Union Square the second half of the plan was quietly dropped. 

ship in Union Square

In addition to the novelty of a wooden ship right next to the subway station entrance, the Recruit of 1917 hosted social events and entertainment, including a much-publicized prize fight. Photo: National Museum of the US Navy.

USS Electrician, a mockup constructed in 1919 at Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads (now Naval Station Norfolk), met a different specific need: training ship’s electricians. The facility was equipped with living quarters, lecture spaces, and reading rooms; Electrician’s trainees learned everything from the theoretical underpinnings of electrical work to the practical use and maintenance of all of the equipment on board ship. The training ship was dismantled circa 1940.

Sailors in front of training ship Electrician

The landlocked ships were often favored backdrops for official base photos. Here, newly graduated ship's electricians pose for their class photo in 1921. Photo: US Navy All Hands magazine September 1975, Public Domain.

Orlando Naval Training Center sailors learned aboard the Bluejacket in the 1970s and ’80s. Other training ships include a small mockup craft at Camp Peary in Virginia, which seems to have only earned a nickname, “Miss Neversail.” “Neversail” was a common nickname for many of the named training ships, like the United States Naval Training Center Bainbridge’s mockup, USS Commodore, which was dismantled as part of until the base’s closure in the 1970s. 

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark E. Ferguson tours one of the simulated bomb-damaged berthing areas aboard USS Trayer (BST 21) at Recruit Training Command. Photo: US Navy, Scott A. Thornbloom).

In 2007 the Navy commissioned USS Trayer, “the unluckiest ship in the Navy.” The 2/3-scale mockup of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer puts recruits through a Battle Stations experience. Using technology adopted from theme park attractions, the disaster scenarios incorporate heat, smells, smoke, vibration, and other effects to realistically mimic conditions in a catastrophe. Her high-tech system is a far cry from the wooden fixtures of that wooden structure in Union Square, but they share a common purpose: to train and prepare the sailors of the US Navy. 

Extra Credit

Building USS Electrician

Training aboard USS Trayer

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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