Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Only One Currently Commissioned Navy Ship Has Sunk an Enemy—Old Ironsides

U.S.S. Constitution in 1803 and the wars against the Barbary Pirates.

Note—From the better late than never file…

As of October 6, 2015 the U.S.S. Constitution became the only commissioned war ship in the U.S. Navy ever to have sunk an enemy craft in combat.  That’s right, the 228 year old 44 gun, square rigged frigate is the only member of the fleet with such a distinction.

The Constitution actually did it twice during the War of 1812.  In addition to taking other British warships and merchantmen as prizes she engaged and sank the H.M.S. Guerriere in a famous engagement on August 19, 1812.  In that engagement the two ships’ rigging became ensnared as they exchanged fire at point blank range.  The Guerriere was demasted and heavily damaged, while many British balls bounced off her thick, strong, American Oak hull winning her the nick name Old Ironsides.  A few months later she engaged another British frigate, the H.M.S Java off the coast of Brazil with similar results.  Both ships were reduced to hulks, set on fire, and sunk by order of Captain Isaak HullThe British Frigates were half of the tonnage of the Constitution and carried 38 guns.  Subsequently the Admiralty forbad individual Royal Navy frigates from engaging in the massive ships of the Constitution’s class, allowing only full size ships of the line or multi-ship squadrons to mount attacks on the American ships.

The Constitution vs. the H.M.S. Guerriere in 1812.

By 1812 the Constitution was already a combat veteran.  She was one of an order of 8 heavy frigates ordered by Congress during the Washington administration in 1794 in preparation for a possible war with France.  She was launched in 1797, in time to see service in the Quasi-War with France (1798-99) during which she captured as prizes at least three armed ships, one the 21-gun Niger which was sailing with a French crew from Jamaica but turned out to be under British orders.  That turned out to be an expensive mistake.

She made a real name for herself in the Barbary Wars against the North African states who demanded tribute for allowing merchantmen in the Mediterranean.   The Constitution led an American squadron in action against the so called Barbary Pirates.  After the U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground off of Tripoli and Lt. Stephen Decatur led his daring raid into the harbor to fire the captured ship, the Constitution under Captain Edward Preble and an accompanying squadron swept into Tripoli harbor August of 1803 and engaged a flotilla of Tripoline gunboats, sinking and damaging most of them and capturing their crews. She then turned her guns on Pasha Yusuf Karamanlis shore fortifications.  In 1805 bombarded Derne in support of William Eaton’s 600 mile trek across the desert to attack the city with a mixed force of mercenaries, Arabs, sailors, and U.S. Marines under First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon.  At the end of the conflicts, she was the flagship of a large American Mediterranean fleet which blockaded Tunis and forced that state to sign a peace.

Old Ironsides turned out to be Boston poet and wag Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes' most popular and enduring verse.

After the War of 1812 the Constitution served in many capacities, including as flag ship of the Mediterranean Squadron, diplomatic missions, and flag ship of the Pacific Squadron.  In 1830 she was saved from permanent decommissioning and possibly being scrapped by a public campaign of support inspired by Old Ironsides, a verse by Boston physician, poet, and wag Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Old Ironsides

Aye 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;—a     

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;—a

The harpies of the shore shall pluck

The eagle of the sea!


Oh, 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 threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

The lightning and the gale!


—Oliver Wendell Holmes


After being restored to service she made a famous three year round-the-world cruise. Her return in 1846 requiring maintenance and repair caused her to miss action in the War with Mexico.  She returned as Mediterranean Squadron flag ship and then as flag ship of the African Squadron with orders to halt the slave trade.  Her last prize was the American slaver H. N. Gambrill taken in 1853. In 1857 she underwent re-configuration as a training ship with the addition of classrooms and a reduction in her armament to 16 guns.  She was recommissioned in 1860 and assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland where she doubled as a seagoing training ship and a floating dormitory while at dock.  During the war she and the Academy were relocated to Fort Adams near Newport, Rhode Island due to threats from hostile Maryland Southern sympathizers and exposure to possible Confederate attack.  Back in Annapolis after the war she took to sea every summer for training cruises and house classrooms over the winter for which she was outfitted with steam heat and gas lighting.  Her commander at the Academy was Civil War hero George Dewey, in command of all of the schools ships.

Earliest photo of the Constitution in dry dock 1858.

In 1871 her condition had deteriorated and she was relieved of duty at the Academy and sent to dry dock in Philadelphia.  She was selected ceremonial duty to commemorate the United States Centennial in 1876.  But repairs dragged on too long for her to participate.  Instead, she was returned to duty as a fleet training ship.

In 1878 she was selected to bring American art, manufactured goods, and inventions to display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.  Four railroad cars loaded with items were hoisted to her decks—an early example of cargo containers.  Due to poor ship handling, and the below par quality of her last restoration, she was involved in several mishaps on the voyages to Europe and back including collisions, and a grounding.  She returned to training cruises but was declared unfit for further service in 1881.

The Constitution ended her days of active service and was decommissioned.  She was moved to the Portsmouth Naval Yard where she was converted to a receiving ship to house new recruits until they were given permanent fleet assignments.  For the next several years she received little maintenance beyond what would keep her barely afloat at her dock.  In 1897 Congressman John F. Fitzgerald, who became known as Honey Fitz as Mayor of Boston and was the grandfather of John F. Kennedy, prevailed on Congress to authorize her transfer to Charleston Navy Yard in time for celebrations of her 100th anniversary

The Constitution fitted out as a barracks ship in Boston in 1905 before a restoration two years later as a museum.

Congress authorized a restoration of the ship but did not appropriate any funds for the projects.  Private attempts to raise funds by the Daughters of the American Revolution floundered until Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte proposed using the ship for target practice and sinking her.  Another round of public outrage finally forced Congress to vote some restoration funds.  Repairs were made, but relatively minimal, allowing her to open as a museum ship in Boston Harbor in1907.

Despite her use as a museum, maintenance on the ship was minimal.  By the mid-1920’s she was taking water and her bilge had to be pumped daily. Her hull, frame, and decking were all rotting and her stern was reported to be ready to fall off.  Congress authorized a full restoration to be financed privately.  Some years of fund raising were needed which included showing of the 1926 silent film Old Ironsides starring Charles Farrell and Wallace Beery, efforts by the Elks Club, sales of replicas of a painting of the ship and various souvenirs made from lumber and metal salvaged from her.   Eventually $600,000 was raised and Congress was cajoled by the press into appropriating and additional $300,000 to complete the project.

Some work was completed as fundraising continued while she was docked.  In 1927 she entered dry dock.  A cache of live oak collected for a ship building project of the 1850’s was discovered at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.  Antique tools needed to restore her to her War of 1812 configuration hard to be scrounged from shipyards up and down the Eastern Seaboard.  She emerged from dry dock in 1930 and was recommissioned as an active Navy ship.  The Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams ordered her to make a three year tour of American ports as thanks to the nation for raising the funds to save her.  She began her tour of 60 ports on July 1, 1931 under the command of Commander Louis J. Gulliver with a crew of sixty officers and sailors, fifteen Marines.  Plans to make at least part of the voyage under sail had to be scrapped due to her packed schedule and concerns that modern Navy personnel could handle an 18th Century sailing ship.  Instead, she was towed the minesweeper U.S.S. Grebe.  On the voyage the Constitution passed through the Panama Canal in each direction.  More than 4.6 million people visited her before she returned to Boston in May of 1934.  She then resumed her duties as a museum ship, hosting more than 100,000 visitors per year.

She survived the epic 1938 New England Hurricane but was blown from her moorings out into Boston Harbor where she collided with the destroyer U.S.S. Ralph Talbot, amazingly suffering little damage. 

During World War II Constitution pulled unusual duty—as a brig for officers awaiting court martial.  She had also served that function for Midshipmen for part of her days at Annapolis.

In 1972 she once again entered dry dock for extensive repair and restoration in preparation for her participation in Bi-Centennial events under Commander Tyrone G. Martin.  On July 10, 1976 the Constitution under tow led the Parade of Tall Ships in Operation Sail in Boston Harbor.  The next day Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip boarded her from the Royal Yacht Britannia for an inspection. 

The Constitution fires a salute while under sail for her bi-Centennial cruise in 1997.

In preparation for her 200th birthday she once again entered dry dock for extensive restoration work.  Her new commanding officer, Commander David Cashman decided that she should make part of her ceremonial voyage under sail rather than be towed.  He trained a hand-picked crew for nearly two years, including time on the Coast Guard’s training ship the U.S.S. Eagle.  On July 20, 1997 she completed part of a voyage from Boston to Marblehead under sail for the first time in 116 years.  The next day with Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton, Chief of Naval Operations Jay L. Johnson, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Richard I. Neal, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and journalist Walter Cronkite on board she sailed again for about 40 minutes and rendered a 21-gun salute to the nation off Fort Independence in Boston Harbor.  She sailed again under her own power for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812.

By contrast the just retired U.S.S. Simpson was launched in 1984 and commissioned the following year.  She, too, was classed as a frigate, the class of war ship smaller than a destroyer designated mostly for escort duty.  She was an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile named for Rear Admiral Rodger W. Simpson and built at Bath Iron Works, in Maine.

U.S.S. Simpson on patrol.

She was built as part of the Reagan administration’s push to float a 600 ship blue water Navy to confront the Soviet Union and intimidate the Chinese.  She represented a break from traditional surface armament carrying only a light compliment of guns—one 75 mm naval gun, one Phalanx CIWS defense for anti-ship missiles, and four .50 machine guns.  She also had two torpedo tubes.  But her main offensive weapons at launch were Harpoon anti-ship missiles and SM-1MR Standard anti-ship/air missiles.  Bristling with sophisticated electronics she was capable of over-the-horizon engagement of enemy ships.  In 2004 the obsolete Harpoons were removed and replaced by two 25 mm cannons while on overseas deployments.

The Simpson sank her enemy vessel in 1988 in the Persian Gulf while escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War.  The Navy was acting as a de facto ally of the Iraqis.  On April 18, 1988 the Simpson, the destroyer U.S.S. Wainwright, and Knox Class Frigate U.S.S. Bagely destroyed Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on the oil platform Sirri.  They then reported that they were under attack from the Iranian Kaman-class missile patrol boat Joshan which fired a Harpoon missile.  The Simpson replied with a Harpoon of her own which destroyed the patrol boat’s superstructure and set her on fire.  The Joshan was finished off and sunk by gun fire.

For most of the next two decades she served multiple deployments in the Persian Gulf, participated in protection of aircraft carriers engaged during humanitarian relief operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Yugoslav Wars in 1993 as well as enforcing no-fly zones against the Serbs, and supported operation’s off of Somalia.  She also enforced U.N. sanctions against Haiti and participated in anti-drug smuggling operations in the Caribbean.  She re-joined the Fifth Fleet as part of NATO action enforcing UN arms embargo against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994.

The end of the Soviet Union put the brakes on the ambitious drive for a 600 ship Navy and the Navy began canceling construction projects and retiring vessels.  The Simpson was assigned to the Active Naval Reserve Force, in 2002.  She spent much of her time on drug interdiction duty and was credited with the capture of 16 metric tons of cocaine and forcing the crew of a self-propelled semi-submersible to scuttle their boat.

When she was decommissioned the Simpson not only the only ship besides the Constitution to sink an enemy, she was the last of the whole class of Oliver Hazzard Perry frigates. 



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