By Emmett O’Connell
For almost 30 years, Budd Inlet was home to one of the National Defense Reserve Fleets that dotted the American coast after World War II. At the height of the reserve fleet program, eight separate fleets were in operation around the country.
The program was established in 1946 to provide extra cargo ships to the merchant marine fleet during military or other not necessarily military emergencies. The Navy itself operated its own extensive reserve fleet that included war ships.
The Budd Inlet reserve fleet was a mix of traditional cargo ships, trooper carriers of all sizes, fuel carriers and ships that could provide power for onshore use. In 1946 when the fleet was first floated, 95 ships made up the fleet. At its largest in the mid-1950s, there were as many as 185 vessels tied up in neat rows in Budd Inlet.
At least initially, the reserve fleet in Olympia was not a universally popular move locally. From the Seattle Times in 1946:
Waterfront residents of Budd Inlet object to the fleet’s presence in their “front yard.” They describe it as an eyesore which mars their view.
Most of the residents… have become reconciled to the ships’ presence, however.
“The trouble is, there’s nobody to complain to,” said Mrs. J.P. Graff…
If a particular ship was needed, it was detached from its neighbors and taken by tugboat to a nearby shipyard to be made ready. In as little as 20 days the ship could be equipped, manned and on the job.
From a 1967 Seattle Times article:
“The United States will always need a reserve fleet,” (Carl H.C.) Johnson said recently, looking at the ships from his office ashore.
It takes less time to get a ship ready into service for an emergency by taking it out of a reserve fleet than it would be to get a new ship built, Johnson said.
The most curious mission of the Olympia Reserve Fleet was as an overflow storage for the nation’s wheat surplus for five years. Between 1954 and 1959, 47 ships in the Olympia Reserve Fleet held more than 10 million bushels of surplus wheat.
The job of keeping the ships ready to move at any point was taken up by a crew of dozens constantly onboard the vessels. They made sure the decks, engines and electric systems were constantly operational. Electricity got to the ships via an underwater cable connected to an operation center at the end of 47th Avenue on the east shore of Budd Inlet.
By the time the Vietnam War began drawing away ships from Olympia, the last days of the fleet were also on the horizon. Newer modern ships that were faster and took fewer crew to operate began making their way into the front line fleet. Using older, more expensive to operate and slower ships as fill ins began to make less and less economic sense.
The last day of the Olympia Reserve Fleet came on June 30, 1972. The remaining 29 ships were mostly sold locally for scrap. Only four became part of another reserve fleet in California.
The state Department of Natural Resources took over the old reserve fleet operations center in 1979. The agency uses it now as storage for some of its marine operations.
When the ships last left Budd Inlet, the Marine Administration left a marker on the bluff above where the old fleet had been docked, reading:
In recognition of the Olympia National Defense reserve Fleet here in Budd Inlet fro March 1946 to June 1972 lay many gallant ships. When not at rest, they and their brave crews served the commerce and security of America and her friends abroad in the Second World War and in later times of Crises.