Saturday, December 17, 2022

John Blackshoe Sends: Serendipity History - Connies and the Military, Part Two

USS Constellation (CVA-64) in the South China Sea, 2 October 1974.
National Archives photograph, K-105258.

Editor's Note: The second installment of John Blackshoe's series on the USS Constellation. JB, you have the conn.

The name was used for a fourth ship, the USS Constellation (CV-64) which served 1961-2003. Overall length 1,080 feet and beam of 282 feet, 39 foot draft and 80,000 tons displacement. Professional surface warfare crew of 3,150 with an additional 2,480 passengers and their aeroplanes.

Hizzoner, Neptunus Lex, (Carroll LeFon) Sarge’s proud mentor, and idol of many of his readers, proudly served on USS Constellation TWICE. First as a fighter pilot, and later as the Operations Officer.

Laid down in September 1957, CV-64 was launched in October 1960. On 19 December 1960 while still in custody of the Brooklyn Navy Yard builders, a forklift on the hangar deck knocked the valve off a 500 gallon diesel fuel tank, and the spilled fuel ignited. With no ship’s crew, firefighting fell to the city fire department and yard workers. After 17 hours it was put out, but 50 yard workers died and 300 were injured mainly from smoke inhalation. Like the 2022 fire on USS Bon Homme Richard (LHD-6), shipyard work involves lots of hoses and cables on deck, through hatches impeding access and setting any boundaries to block fire or smoke. Shipyard periods are extremely dangerous times on any ship, and OBAs and EEBDs [Oxygen Breathing Apparatus and Emergency Escape Breathing Devices] really do save lives!

USS Constellation’s delivery was delayed but the $75 million damage was all repaired making the total cost about $265 million. She was the last carrier built anywhere but Newport New. 

Her operational history somewhat typical of modern carriers, with lots of workups and deployments. Reaching operational status in 1963 with a short WESTPAC cruise, the Connie’s second cruise was just in time to launch retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf incident, bringing us into an endless and fruitless war. Nine years and seven combat deployments later, Connie was there for the end. 

Ops to the Mideast became routine, sparring with Iran, Iraq and assorted riff-raff in that rough neighborhood. Gulf War I and subsequent no-fly ops and eventually post 9-11 2001 ops filled the rest of Connie’s career.

Lex¹ on his first Connie tour, relaxing in his stateroom in the 1980s while assigned to VFA-25 “The Fist of the Fleet.”
On 2 August 1988 USS Constellation departed San Diego, and an overhaul piping error resulted in 20,000 gallons of JP-5 running down the boiler uptakes into one of the main engineering spaces resulting in a major conflagration. Firefighting efforts lasted about 24 hours and the ship was in real danger until the crew finally extinguished the fire. Nothing is more frightening to a sailor than a fire aboard a ship at sea.

Sailors manning the rails of the USS CONSTELLATION (CV 64) (1964-2003), as the ship enters harbor of Sydney Australia, in 2001.
While this IS the USS Constellation, I am not sure if Lex was aboard for this visit. However, his tale of one visit to Australia is a fun sea story.

Lex as Operations Officer, and his wife upon return home in 2003. USS Constellation in the background. This was the ship’s final cruise, and she was decommissioned two months later.
Go ahead and read Lex’s account of that homecoming (linked above), with its brief description of life aboard a modern warship. Or, treat yourself to the much longer semi-fictional account of life aboard a carrier. “Rhythms” told in 54 installments.

But, alas, that USS Constellation is no more. After decommissioning in 2003 she was stored in Bremerton, WA until 2012 when the Navy sold off 3 carriers (Constellation, Forrestal, and Independence) for about a buck each to be scrapped. Connie’s turn at the breakers began in January 2015 and the last bit of scrap metal was pulled from the water on 10 May 2017, leaving nothing but photos and memories of a once proud and valuable fighting ship.

Only someone who has served on a ship can grasp how much it means to them, and the emotional trauma of seeing their home torn asunder. The magnitude of the job for Connie and other carriers is shocking in a series of Google Earth images². NSFW for those who served on them, but others may not be hit by the same emotions. Allow time for the images to load and cycle through. Connie’s molestation is about two-thirds of the way down the page.

(Slideshow here.)
Understanding this emotional attachment, read again “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendall Holmes (1809-1894) the Dean of Harvard Medical School, and part time poet, not his son (1841-1935), the Supreme Court Justice). 

“On September 14, 1830, the Boston Daily Advertiser announced that the Secretary of the Navy had recommended that the Constitution be broken up, as no longer fit for service. As soon as he heard this Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his poem Old Ironsides, which appeared two days later. It immediately became a battle-cry; was repeated all through the country; and caused such a wave of feeling for the time-scarred frigate that the plan of dismantling her was given up, and instead she was rebuilt, and given an honored place among the veterans of the country's navy.” 

(Source for introductory quote and poem.)

Old Ironsides
By Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. 

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
  Long has it waved on high
And many an eye has danced to see
  That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
  And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
  Shall sweep the clouds no more!

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood
  Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood
  And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
  Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
  The eagle of the sea!

O, better that her shattered hulk
  Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
  And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
  Set every thread-bare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,—
  The lightning and the gale!

The fifth and newest USS Constellation is the lead ship of the new FFG-62 class FREMM multipurpose frigate being built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin. These will be 6,400 tons, 496 feet long, 65 foot beam and 18 foot draft, much larger than the 22 gun sloop, but a lot smaller than the aircraft carrier!

Yeah, I care a lot about old ships, and those who go down to the sea in them. My last ship, “plucked by harpies,” in 1996 is now nothing but photos and memories. Like the first three.

Maybe there will be more stories about Connies and the military, but that’s enough for now.

-- John Blackshoe

Editor's Note: Hopefully JB will regale us again with his thoughts and observations. Well done John, well done!

¹ Attentive readers might note that this photo, cropped, graces the masthead of the blog.
² USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga are also shown. Those ships were tied up at NS Newport for a long time, I used to drive by them frequently. USS Iowa was also there, she had a kinder fate.


  1. A wise man does not go into any fire, even a grass fire, without his SCOTT or MSA SCBA. You have no idea what may have been sprayed on that grass, and there is no knowing what is in a structure, or vehicle fire.

    1. That wise man having a SCOTT or any other breathing gear would make them a professional rather than just the first person to show up trying to help.

  2. Oh, great, the new frigates get the same joke gun that the Little Coffin Ships have.

  3. A fine post JB, I really appreciate the experiences of those who served and the ships they came to know. Thanks again Sarge for this platform.

  4. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Kind of ironic, the two things a sailor must keep at bay, or die, are antithetical to each other. Fire and water. Without one, no propulsion (Well, except for those neutron burners, arguably. Their potential for danger is similar, but different in kind). WIthout the other, no flotation. But let either escape its man-made confinement, and there is mortal peril.

    1. The nukes require water, too--that atomic heart is there to turn water into steam; still, I'm glad both my carriers were oil-burners!
      --Tennessee Budd

  5. With you. My first command I decommed and turned over to the ROC Navy. My last command, I was the plankowner CO, but was invited back to her decomm many years later. She was scrapped alas. You don't forget or stop caring.

  6. Bravo Zulu JB. I've seen some of the oil rigs down around Brownsville, but I didn't realize that's where the Carriers went, too. Heartbreaking. "Harpies" indeed....

  7. I watched the Oriskany as it was towed down the Sabine Neches Ship Channel to be prepared for a final sinking off Florida as a reef. My bosses' father was in town, and he fondly remembered the few times he landed on the carrier in an F-8. for a few moments, he had that thousand yard stare as he silently remembered his younger days.

  8. Seconding Sarge's comment - great pair of articles JB; you should write more!

    I can barely imagine the pain at having something so significant in one's life literally destroyed. And really - sold for a buck? That seems, somehow, wrong.

    1. Enviormental rules make it almost impossible to sell them for a decent amount. The shipbreaker's expenses to meet those rules eat up a lot of profit.

  9. John, thank you -- although it was painful to watch one of my former homes, CV 59, being mutilated. It would have been much better to have put her to rest at sea.
    CV 67 is still afloat, and may be saved, but I'm not sanguine as to her future. (they're ships and therefore each is a 'she', but it just occurred to me that both carriers on which I served were named for men. Foreshadowing of the gender crap? I'll tell anyone that I did not serve on any confused ships!)
    --Tennessee Budd

  10. Thanks so much JB! This old landlubber is learning so much thanks to guys such as your self and Old AF Sarge. I once (1963) spend a week or so on the Bonne Homme Richard. Exchange duty/fun. Sasebo to Okinawa. After that week aboard, I still got lost trying to find the mess from my quarters under the “steaming shooter catapult thingee”. Flag quarters, I was told. Great fun. One cat, one trap, in a stoof with a roof.

  11. Extended on station in 85 during Hezbollah hijacking og TWA 847.

    Again in 87, bustered up to Gonzo from DeGar where Gramm Rudman had us hanging out doing Flanchor Ops and saving ship fuel after the Stark was hit. Kicked off Operation Earnest Will for the tanker wars.

    CAG-14 aboard in both cases. Fortuna Favit Fortibus

  12. Not all ships are so deserving of mourning. My first ship, while one of a beautiful class and at one time a "happy ship" was anything but for me and most of the JO's aboard her. I do not mourn her passing any more than I will when those LCS-travesties are recycled.
    Boat Guy


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