The helicopter carrier USS Guam broke down in the Philadelphia River the first time the Navy tested it following a $23 million overhaul. It limped back to the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
The second time it went out for a test, the main pump failed, it lost oil pressure and had to be towed back up the river to the repair yard.
The third and fourth breakdowns occurred after the Navy had accepted the ship as repaired -- last October in the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk and on Nov. 13 off Guantanamo Bay, where crewmen said it drifted dangerously near Cuban waters and a Cuban gunboat.
Yesterday, with the Guam finally off on a tour of the North Atlantic -- still in only marginally ready shape -- Rep. William G. Whitehurst (R-Va.) said a congressional investigation will be held soon on the overhaul program, which he said is so poor that it "poses grave questions about our country's ability to continue as a dominant seapower in the world."
That "botched" work on he Guam "is symptomatic of the ills plaguing the overhaul industry," Whitehurst charged. "The roots of these problems may be traceable more to poor Navy management practices than to the shipyard."
Whitehurst said his criticism "is in no way intended to be interpreted as an indictment of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard," which is a rival for repair contracts of the privately owned Newport News Shipping Co., which adjoins his congressional district.
Retired Navy Capt. Lou Kriser, the Whitehurst aide who investigated the repair problems, reported that shipyard personnel told him that quality assurance programs, particularly in the private yards, are "just paper work programs designed to meet contracting requirements."
"A recurring theme," according to the seven-term congressman from Norfolk, "is that the Navy does not get a reasonable job done in overhauls for the money expended."
The Navy declined to respond to Whitehurst's charges, but said it stood by a statement issued last month in which it accepted part of the blame for insisting that the ship return to active duty before the shipyard had time to complete the overhaul.
Admiral Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that the Navy "has been at a virtually wartime operating tempo since the Vietnam conflict, and has never stood down. Today the average ship's operating tempo exceeds Vietnam levels by about 15 percent. All of this clearly takes it toll, in stress on people and material, some of it deferred by borrowing against the future, but all of it creating a bill which must be reckoned with eventually. Equipment run hard with maintenance postponed will ultimately break down."
Whitehurst, the ranking Republican on the new House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, said the Guam saild out of Norfolk Tuesday in worse shape than "when I was a bluejacket aboard the Yorktown. That was in 1945 and 'the Fighting Lady' had been through World War II. We didn't have any problems like this, and this is peacetime."
But he stopped short of calling the 17-year-old, 602-foot amphibious assault ship a danger to its 609-member crew. The Guam, which is capable of hauling 1,731 troops and 19 helicopters, routinely is overhauled every two to four years.
Whitehurst said that when it first left the shipyard after the overhaul, "it was unable to make a full-power run, its pumps malfunctioned, its saltwater evaporators did not work properly, its engines were fouled by oily rags and, among a long list of other problems, the ship's sewage holding tank was -- and to my knowledge still -- inoperable." t
The congressman added that "Incredibly, even though approximately $110,000 was spent to overhaul the ship's navigation system, it was inoprative during a recent shakedown cruise and the ship's position had to be determined by the Christopher Columbus method of celestial navigation." t