Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

USS Enterprise – A British Memoriam

           We are Legend; Ready on Arrival; The First, the Finest; Eight Reactors, None FasterBig EWhen a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: ‘What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?’
                 – Admiral C.A.H. Trost, USN Chief of Naval Operations Proceedings, May 1990

 

In December 2012, in execution of the recommendations set down in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2010, the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was ‘inactivated’ at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Such ceremonies are always poignant events, a mixture of sadness and celebratory reflection on a ships life and achievements. It is estimated that some 100,000 American men and women had served on her during a distinguished 51-year career and many of them turned out to say farewell to this extraordinary warship.

She is not only extraordinary in her length of service in the U.S. Navy but also in her size and capabilities. She is 1,123 feet long (331 feet shorter than the height of the Empire State Building). Her displacement is 95,000 long tons, 4.5 times larger than the recently decommissioned Royal Navy Invincible-class carriers and still 25 – 30,000 long tons larger than, the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, the first of which will enter service in 2018, 60 years after the hull of Enterprise was laid down in a Virginian ship yard. Her 8 nuclear reactors allowed her to ‘steam’ at up to 35 knots, and meant she never had to refuel. She had a ships company of over 3,000 and could carry up to 95 aircraft. I often remember fondly a story my father told me in which he recalls acting as plane guard to a Nimitz class carrier in the Persian Gulf in 1991. In command of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Scylla (F71), he was struck by her effortless acceleration, while he practically had to burn the wardroom furniture to keep up. Even if not Enterprise, I imagine many a naval officer around the world has similar, lasting impressions of an American nuclear powered carrier.

Big E 2By any yardstick Enterprise is an impressive military asset, and all the more so when you consider she was laid down just 13 years after the end of the Second World War. Since then she has been involved in almost every major conflict since, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, including;

• Six deployments in support of Operations in Vietnam, during which she survived a devastating fire.
• Operation Frequent Wind (1975); the evacuation of U.S. citizens and at-risk Vietnamese citizens during the North’s invasion of the South.
• Operation El Dorado Canyon (1886); the bombing of Libya.
• Operation Earnest Will (1988); escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Tanker Wars.
• Operation Preying Mantis (1988) in response to the Iranian mining of an American warship during Earnest Will.
• Operation Classic Resolve (1989); demonstrating American support to Philippine President Corazon Aquino during an attempted rebel coup.
• Operation Joint Endeavour (1996) & Operation Southern Watch (1996); enforcing no fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq respectively.
• Operation Desert Fox (1998); launching airstrikes against targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following his continued flagrant disregard for UN sanctions.

In more recent years, Enterprise was first to provide direct air support for Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 invasion of land-locked Afghanistan, delivering 700 seaborne airstrikes in just 3 weeks. She would later provide continued air support for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She has even supported operations off the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates, quite a contrast to her baptism of fire off Cuba. I only list the most salient operations in which she played a significant part, but this list – by no means exhaustive – is sufficient to demonstrate the flexibility and utility of such a vessel. The above record also does not account for the ever-valuable ‘showing the flag’ missions, a task for which she would have had a powerful talent. One must never underestimate the diplomatic leverage a warship with such destructive potential can afford, either sitting offshore or docked in harbour; wherever she is in the world she is a potent expression of America’s engagement with that region. There is something sublime and deeply affecting in the design, scale and military capability of a carrier such as Enterprise.

But she is more than a military asset; she is also an American icon. She has hosted rock concerts, she had starring roles in the films Top Gun and Hunt for the Red October, and of course, her futuristic namesake explores the final frontier. She and her sister ships not only define how America prosecutes defence, but also help to shape an understanding of American culture and international identity. When commissioned in 1961 Enterprise was the embodiment of the post-war American spirit, powerful, flexible, responsive and technologically innovative, characteristics that all contributed to an over-arching commitment to global security1. She was a clear demonstration of America’s post-1945 ambitions and more significantly for a Brit like myself, a clear indication that the Royal Navy had been conclusively usurped as the world’s preponderant naval force (however I am yet to concede the title of the finest!). Seapowers around the globe still aspire towards what Enterprise defines. You only need to look to the shipyards of China, India, Russia and indeed, the United Kingdom, to get an appreciation for the far-reaching legacy of this ship, laid down half a century ago.

Big E 3Her inactivation has not hugely impacted America’s seaborne air-power capabilities. The U.S. Navy still operates 10 carrier battle groups across the globe (each purported to cost the equivalent of the entire Italian defence budget), capable of responding swiftly to any emergency, be it military or humanitarian. These groups continue to define America’s global defence posture. The Nimitz-class carriers, and the new generation currently under construction, present a clear indication that Washington still has an intention to remain a global presence to shape its and the world’s future from the sea and not from protracted and costly wars ashore.

At the de-commissioning event in December, Captain William C. Hamilton, Jr., the twenty-third and final commanding officer of Enterprise reflected on the ships history, “Enterprise is a special ship and crew, and it was special long before I got here”.

“Before I took command of this ship, I learned the definition of ‘enterprise’, which is ‘an especially daring and courageous undertaking driven by a bold and adventurous spirit.’ Fifty-one years ago, this ship was every bit of that definition.”

“Here we are 51 years later, celebrating the astonishing successes and accomplishments of this engineering marvel that has roamed the seas for more than half the history of Naval Aviation. Daring, courageous, bold, and adventurous indeed.”2

It is hardly surprising, and a reflection of the impression Enterprise has made on the American psyche, that a recent announcement declared that the latest Gerald R. Ford-class carrier will be named Enterprise, the 9th American warship to bear what has become a legendary title. When one considers the contribution of Big E to American security, diplomacy and military operations over the last half century, who can argue, as some are tempted to do here in London, if not in words but in their actions, that seapower is becoming less and less relevant to present and future global security?

 Simon Williams received a BA Hons in Contemporary History from the University of Leicester in 2008. In early 2011 he was awarded an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His postgraduate dissertation was entitled The Second Boer War 1899-­1902: A Triumph of British Sea Power. He organised the Navy is the Nation Conference, which was held in April 2012 in Portsmouth, UK. The aim of this event was to explore the impact of the Royal Navy on British culture and national identity.

1. I must add at this point however that the USN relies heavily on RN mine-countermeasure vessels to ensure safe passage of his big-ticket assets in hostile waters.

2. ‘Enterprise, Navy’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier, Inactivated’

Conning the Constitution

Constitution goes out to sea in Boston Harbor, August, 2012

When I reached Charlestown Navy Yard on August 19, 2012, it seemed like a perfect morning to be underway in the harbor:  clear skies, a forecast high in the mid-70s, and the ship going to sea was USS Constitution, set to sail on her own power for the second time in 131 years.  Reporting as her conning officer was certainly the last thing I ever expected to do. 

Six months earlier, Commander Matthew Bonner, Constitution’s 72nd commanding officer, asked if I’d be up for the job.  Boston NROTC, where I teach navigation and naval operations to midshipmen, has a long standing relationship with Constitution.  With only an Executive Officer and Operations Officer, the wardroom would be fully stretched that day.  I was understandably more than happy to help out. 

Once onboard, I surveyed the area where the navigation team and I would be working.  The harbor chart was laid out on a folding table in front of the ship’s proud 10-spoke wooden helm about three quarters of the way aft.  Navigation equipment was rather limited; a magnetic compass on each side of the ship’s wheel was the only permanently installed equipment.  Technicians from Naval Sea Systems Command, onboard to monitor the stability of the ship, had also installed a digital reader for course and speed. 

As the underway time of 1000 neared, the ship was buzzing with activity.  Constitution’s normal crew is around just over 50, but they had assistance from 150 Chief Petty Officer-Selects temporarily assigned for a two-week CPO heritage program.  Also onboard were several former Constitution commanding officers, Medal of Honor recipient Captain Tom Hudner (Ret.), three flag officers, and the British Consul General.  With the crew taking in the last line and casting us into the harbor, I could feel the shared excitement as we began our historic cruise. 

There was no conning to be done, initially.  One primary tug boat and a backup were towing the ship approximately three miles to a predetermined “sail box” just past the channel entrance where we would have up to a mile to maneuver with sufficient separation from shoal water.  Despite not having active control of the ship, two Quartermasters laid regular fixes from a handheld GPS receiver. 

Once in the channel, Commander Bonner and the British Consul General laid a wreath overboard to honor the 7 American and 15 British sailors who died in the fierce battle between Constitution and HMS Guerriere 200 years ago that day.  Constitution’s vanquishing of the British frigate was a milestone victory for the early U.S. Navy and also the occasion where the ship earned her famous “Old Ironsides” moniker. 

Summer weekends are popular times for pleasure boaters in Boston Harbor, and that Sunday was no exception.  Hundreds of boats were out in the harbor to catch a glimpse of America’s ship of state, with many trying to follow along for the whole cruise.  Fortunately, the Massachusetts State Police, Boston Police, Massachusetts Environmental Police, and U.S. Coast Guard provided escort and protection with a sizable exclusion zone around Constitution.

The two-hour trip to the sail box flew by.  Before I knew it, our two tugs were turning us around between Deer Island and Long Island and into position.  Around this time our “sail master,” a First Class Boatswains Mate, began barking commands to a hybrid team of Constitution crew and CPO-selects.  In well-rehearsed sequence and with dozens of Sailors on various lines, the crew raised Constitution’s three main sails.  The world’s oldest commissioned warship was coming to life. 

It was almost game time for me and my helmsman, a First Class Sonar Technician.  We reviewed what we learned the prior Friday during steering checks:  maximum rudder in either direction is 20 degrees, one full turn of the wheel is 10 degrees, therefore each of the wheel’s 10 spokes represents one degree of rudder.  There was no rudder angle indicator like one typically finds on ships.  Instead, a black marking on the line wrapped around the wheel moves forward and aft relative four rows of line on either side as the wheel turns. 

The Quartermaster recommended course 260T to return us to the western end of the sail box and back into the channel.  To verify we were on that heading, I called over to the still-connected tug’s captain.  Constitution’s two magnetic compasses fluctuated during the transit and now displayed conflicting headings, and since we were still dead in the water, our digital course repeater was unable to help.  After verifying that we were on the correct heading, I was ready to go.

“Conn, tug’s cast off!”  the Captain yelled to me, and with a “Rudder amidships,” we were off and sailing.  The entire crew, who had worked so hard and waited so long for this special moment, erupted in spontaneous applause as the tugs moved away and took ready station off our quarters.  I can recall the surreal feeling of looking to my left and right seeing no tugs and knowing that I was playing a small part in navigating this almost sacred warship, and would remember it for the rest of my life. 

I allowed myself only a brief period to soak in the moment and then kept my focus on driving the ship.  Although we were laying frequent fixes, I relied on input from the Captain, who had climbed partway up the ship’s rigging for a better view.  Standing by the helm, one has only a limited view of what is actually ahead of the ship.  As we intended to maintain course, only minor rudder adjustments were required. 

USS Constitution handled very surely.  At roughly two knots speed over ground, we pressed ahead.  Our speed, while slow, impressed everyone onboard since we had a tail wind of just about three knots.  That was just enough to fill our sails and keep Joshua Humphrey’s brilliantly designed ship moving ahead.  News helicopters circled overhead and hundreds of boaters kept up with what must have been a majestic sight.  The last time Constitution was underway on sail power was 1997, and prior to that was 1881. 

 

USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere have at it in 1812

Seventeen minutes later, our brief sail into history came to an end.  The tug returned, the crew partly lowered the sails, and Constitution was no longer under our direction.  It felt like no time at all, but I relished every second.  It was a great feeling to shake hands with the helmsman and quartermasters as we shared congratulations and absorbed up what we had just done. 

We were not finished yet, though, as the return to Charlestown was still ahead and Constitution still had one more show to put on.  The tug brought us to a stop just north of Fort Independence at Castle Island, where thousands (including my mom) had assembled for a view.  The crew came to attention, and with a thunderous “boom” a 21-gun salute commenced.   Dozens of surrounding boats answered with their whistles and the harbor was alive with enthusiasm.  Afterwards, in an unscripted moment, the Chief-selects broke out in “Anchors Aweigh,” soon joined by the whole crew.  We sang so loudly that the crowd on shore could hear, I later learned, and they loved it. 

 

LT Chris Peters, after the wardroom meal of hard tacks and salted beef

Around an hour later, a small crowd welcomed Constitution back to the Navy Yard, and we moored where we had started roughly four hours earlier.  Knowing that the day’s events were almost certainly something I would never take part in again, I took time to reflect before disembarking.  I thought of naval heroes like Edward Preble and Stephen Decatur who walked Constitution’s decks two centuries before.  Considering their bravery, courage, and the impact they and USS Constitution had on our early Navy and the country, I was incredibly humbled to feel so connected to their history.  I also thought of the professional, passionate Constitution sailors I met that day.  Those impressive men and women are heirs to and representations of our proud past.  On August 19, 1812, USS Constitution’s iron-like live oak hull repelled British cannon fire, but it was the courage and resilience of the American Sailor that won the day and continues to keep our Navy strong. 

LT Chris Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and an instructor at Boston University. 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

 

A Great Leap for Mankind Takes the Last Step for a Man

An accomplishment that should have never remained so unique.

Today, a piece of America’s soul has passed. Neil Armstrong, first of humanity’s representatives to stride upon a celestial body, has died. His passing is part of a greater trend, a legacy of starry-eyed optimism left behind in the morass of temporal practicality. Today, the first of our number to turn and look upon earth from a foreign body joins our manned mars program, our shuttle program, and the once unfettered collective dreams he carried with him.

CIMSEC is a blog about maritime security. Is not the maritime domain  primarily defined as a vast commons that hosts a sustained presence through buoyancy alone? An even greater commons awaits above, where although the vessels look far different, they are called ships nonetheless. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the fathers of modern rocketry, once said, “A planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” Neil Armstrong took those first baby steps out of the cradle, learning to walk for us all. As our heroes fade away, we should keep their memories, and our future, alive… by learning to run.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Divers Find Sunken WWII German U-boat off Nantucket

Side-scan sonar image of U-550 from GK Consulting & AWS Expeditions.

Divers using side-scan sonar on Monday found the wreck of U-550This discovery is a reminder that the oceans that flank America, and have often shielded the nation from the direct wrath of enemies, are not impregnable. 

NBC news provides an account of the naval action that sent the U-boat to the bottom:

On April 16, 1944, the U-550 torpedoed the gasoline tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania, which had lagged behind its protective convoy as it set out with 140,000 barrels of gasoline for Great Britain, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website and research by Mazraani.

 

The U-boat slipped under the doomed tanker to hide. But one of the tanker’s three escorts, the USS Joyce, saw it on sonar and severely damaged it by dropping depth charges.

 

The Germans, forced to surface, manned their deck guns while another escort vessel, the USS Gandy, returned fire and rammed the U-boat. The third escort, the USS Peterson, then hit the U-boat with two more depth charges. The crew abandoned the submarine, but not before setting off explosions to scuttle it. The submarine hadn’t been seen again until Monday.

Crew of the U-550 abandon ship.

The American ships were destroyer escorts (DEs) of Escort Division 22 and manned by Coast Guard crews plus the Gandy, a Navy DE. The surviving German crew were taken to Great Britain.