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In Long Beach, an Era Ends in Tears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only 25 years ago that Long Beach was home port for 120 ships and 45,000 Navy personnel. Sailors used to flood the city’s waterfront, ducking into bars like the Cruiser or the Midway and wandering through the Pike, with its roller coaster and tattoo parlors.

Bit by bit, however, the Navy has been disappearing from Long Beach, succumbing to defense belt-tightening and the end of the Cold War. And on Friday came word that the naval shipyard, the Navy’s last hold on Long Beach, would be shut down.

“It’s scary how fast it all went,” said Lois Johnson, a waitress at Twin Wheels, a dark bar and restaurant a few blocks north of the shipyard, its wall covered with paintings of bulky, half-clad women. “All the Navy housing is closed. We just don’t have the business anymore.”

Indeed, merchants, shipyard workers and politicians were stunned by the news Friday. At an unusual gathering at a hotel in Long Beach, optimistic early-morning banter suddenly turned to a funereal pall as it became clear that the Long Beach Naval Shipyard was going down.

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As 100 or so shipyard workers, elected officials and supporters clustered around a television, the members of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission cast their votes in Washington, one by one. The hotel lounge turned silent.

A few onlookers burst into tears or hugged one another in commiseration. Others looked at the floor and shook their heads. Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill clasped her cheeks in disbelief. “I’m bitterly disappointed,” she said. “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Although shipyard supporters held onto slim hopes that President Clinton would overturn the commission’s recommendations, Friday’s vote appeared to be the death knell for the shipyard and the end of Long Beach’s proud history as a Navy town.

The Navy town’s heyday extended into the 1970s. But after the Vietnam War, the Navy began transferring most of the ships to San Diego, leaving the Long Beach Naval Station as a “support facility” with only four ships.

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Long Beach got its first up-close look at the pared-down, post-Cold War military in 1991, when the base closure commission ordered the Long Beach Naval Station eliminated. The base, with its complement of 16,500 sailors and 1,000 civilians, was closed last year.

With two major naval facilities being extracted from the city like a pair of molars, Long Beach will take a bigger hit from base closures than all but four states, city officials say.

Friday’s vote was also another blow to Southern California in the long, grueling process of paring back the military in the post-Cold War era.

In previous rounds of base closings, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County and March Air Force Base in Riverside County were ordered closed.

The Long Beach shipyard pumps $757 million a year in business into the region, according to an independent economic study, but the immediate concern of city officials was for about 3,000 shipyard workers who face layoffs within two years.

“These are not jobs that can walk across the street to another plant,” said Bill Gurzi, chairman of the Southern California Save Our Shipyard Committee. “These people work on ships, and there’s not a lot of that going on.”

Workers spoke apprehensively about moving from federal employment into private industry.

“They usually like to bring their supervisors up through the ranks,” said Bernardo Tucay, an electronics foreman with 21 years at the shipyard.

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City officials said they would work with congressional representatives in seeking to have the commission vote overturned, but they privately held out little hope that President Clinton would intercede.

To intercede for Long Beach, the President would have to reject the entire list of recommendations and send it back to the commission for reconsideration.

The shipyard was targeted for closure twice before, in 1991 and 1993, surviving easily the first time but eking out a 4-3 vote the second time.

“We’re just numbers, that’s all,” said Louis Rodriguez, president of Local 174 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. “I don’t even want to go back to work. I’ve been getting calls from workers’ wives wondering what they were going to do.”

The grief and disbelief quickly turned to bitterness, as shipyard workers and officials wrote the decision off as “politics.”

“It’s hard to understand,” said shipfitter supervisor Billy Morris, citing Long Beach’s reputation as the only naval shipyard that does not operate at a loss to the government. “They close the ones that are making a profit and keep the ones that are not making a profit. It’s just political.”

Some workers cited an intense lobbying effort by the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which reportedly offered a lobbyist a bounty of $75,000 if the Long Beach shipyard was closed.

Others talked of a pro-San Diego bias by high Navy officials.

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“I’m sorry the admirals have to have their tequila sunrises on Coronado Bridge, but we need the shipyard in Long Beach,” said Patricia Ray, 45, a welder who has worked for the shipyard for 24 years.

Though Navy ship commanders still laud the 52-year-old shipyard as a repair facility, it is a shadow of what it was during World War II. In 1945, when the shipyard was patching up battle-damaged destroyers, cruisers and transport ships to send them back to war, it employed 16,000 civilians.

During the 1980s, there were more than 8,000 workers, as the Reagan Administration beefed up the Navy. But in recent years, there have been many layoffs and forced retirements.

Some workers were fatalistic about the shipyard’s demise.

“We were really hoping,” said the 54-year-old Tucay, who has two children in junior high school, “but in our hearts we knew it was going to happen.”


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