No Higher Honor (5 page)

The
Roberts
earned its two battle stars in 1965: one for bombarding enemy positions on Hainan Island; another for action off Vietnam, where it stood plane guard as the USS
Enterprise
(CVN 65) delivered history's first air strikes from a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
24
(More than three decades hence, the “Big E” would return the favor, exacting revenge for
the mining of the third
Samuel B. Roberts
.) By 1970 the second
Sammy B
was worn out. The crew stripped the destroyer for decommissioning, and gunners aboard newer warships sank it for practice off Puerto Rico.
25

RINN BELIEVED GOOD
sailors carried a sense of heritage in their sea bags. The heroes of the past offered a standard to meet, a path to follow, a spur to excellence. “Joining the navy made you aware that you were part of history, doing things people had done before you,” he said. “You thought, ‘Maybe if I do what they did, it will help me.'” The connection was as much emotional as intellectual for Rinn, who could get quite worked up while discussing the tardy rescue of the survivors of DE 413.

So the captain-to-be set out to embed his ship's heritage into the fiber of its crew. He eagerly tore into a packet of information from the Naval Historical Center in Washington.
26
He borrowed Coxswain Roberts's Navy Cross from his family and had it framed in a shadowbox for the officers' wardroom. He commissioned a bronze plaque listing the DE 413 sailors who fought in the battle off Samar. He plucked the ship's official motto—“No Higher Honor”—from Copeland's battle report; it described a good skipper's attitude toward good sailors. And he stocked the ship's small store with a slim navy-blue hardcover book: Robert Copeland's memoir.

    
We sold 400 copies of that book in the store—
The Legend of the Sammy B
.—so they knew who Samuel Booker Roberts was and how he got the Navy Cross, and they knew about DE 413 and how it made an impossible attack. They met the survivors. They knew there was something before them and something that was awful good, it was awful courageous, and was awful brave.

        
More importantly, it was a small ship [about which] everybody said, “What can you do?” Turn back a bunch of Japanese cruisers, that's what. And go in harm's way. And look at hell in the face and say, “Fuck you.”

Rinn intended to mold his own ship in that image.

He had a head start of sorts. His
Perry
-class frigate was another kind of ship about which many said: “What can you do?” The answer to that began in a New England shipyard.

CHAPTER THREE
A Bath-Built Ship

A
small Maine city seemed hardly the place to find a naval shipyard late in the twentieth century. Its location, tucked amid the forests that were so vital to an earlier era's craft, was far from the steel plants that fed modern shipyards. Autumn came early and spring late to the banks of the Kennebec River. In between there were months of biting cold and snow, when outdoor labor became a grueling feat of endurance. But Bath had good reason to call itself the City of Ships. A tiny band of British settlers had pioneered New World shipbuilding on the Kennebec more than a dozen years before the
Mayflower
landed at Plymouth, and a thriving industry had grown up in the first decades of American independence. Shipwrights found a natural home in the river town, which was sheltered from Atlantic storms, supplied by local timber, and blessed with a three-mile stretch of ruler-straight riverbank—the Long Reach—whose gentle slope fell at once to deep water.
1

In 1884 a local Civil War hero by the name of Thomas Worcester Hyde issued stock for his machinery firm, a thriving concern built around a fifty-year-old foundry, and incorporated it as Bath Iron Works Ltd. (BIW).
2
Hyde's company soon ushered Maine into steel-ship manufacture with a U.S. Navy order for two 205-foot gunboats; over the next half century, BIW built everything from the battleship USS
Georgia
(BB 15) to J. P. Morgan's $3.5 million yacht.
3
But the Maine yard became best known for its destroyers. During World War II Bath turned out eighty-two of the fast, slender-hulled warships—more than the entire German Reich or the Japanese empire.
4
Its vessels were delivered faster, cheaper, and with fewer defects than other yards', and they earned a near-mythic reputation for endurance under fire. The destroyer USS
Laffey
(DD 724)—“the ship that would not die”—shrugged off German shells at Normandy,
steamed halfway around the world, and survived hits from five kamikazes and four bombs at Okinawa.
5
The coming of the Cold War seemed to cement Bath's primacy among U.S. destroyer builders; between 1950 and 1965, BIW designed more than half of the navy's smaller surface combatants: destroyers, destroyer escorts, frigates.
6
“Bath-built is best-built,” the saying went.
7

But by the late 1960s the Maine firm struggled to compete with larger shipyards that were bankrolled by deep-pocketed defense conglomerates. Bath took a tough blow in June 1970, when it lost a bid for the mammoth thirty-ship contract to build the state-of-the-art DX destroyer. The job, awarded in a selection process noted for political influence and shifting rules, went to Litton-Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The loss of the DX, which was the last destroyer-type ship the navy planned to build for some years, left Bath's future as a military shipbuilder uncertain.

Several weeks later, two BIW executives flew to Washington for a meeting with the head of U.S. Navy shipbuilding. William Haggett, the yard's marketing manager, was one of these; company president James Goodrich was the other. Both men had spent much time in the capital city, pitching their services to admirals and members of Congress. This time, however, they sought an augury on their yard's future. They had requested an appointment with Rear Adm. Nathan Sonenshein, the powerful chief of the Bureau of Ships, and they were not encouraged by the time slot: 7:00
AM
. This was early for a business meeting, even by military standards, and it seemed to portend no good.

An aide ushered the men from Bath into Sonenshein's Pentagon office, and Haggett got right to the point. “How would you suggest we move ahead in a way that allows us to maintain our hundred-year history of doing work with the navy?” he asked the admiral. “Is there repair work we might do?”
8

Sonenshein was blunt. “Now that we have awarded the DX contract to Litton, I can see no further need for the Bath Iron Works in any of the Navy's future programs,” the admiral said.
9
Sonenshein likely held no particular animus against Bath; he was a champion of efficiency who believed the United States was already carrying excess industrial capacity.
10

But Haggett was furious. BIW was smaller than its rivals, but its design and production proposal had outlasted all but one in the contest for the
DX. The Maine yard had been building destroyers since the sleek warships were invented, and Haggett, who had been raised in Bath by a father who ran the yard's tin shop, did not intend to stop.

The problem was that BIW wasn't building much of anything at that point. For the first time in thirty-seven years, there were no new ships on the building ways, and the yard was limping along on upgrade jobs. In a dismal mood, Goodrich and Haggett boarded a plane at nearby Washington National Airport and headed back to BIW, grimly determined to keep their yard alive. They realized that Bath would have to adapt to survive. Over the next few years, the yard scratched up enough work to stay afloat, taking in subcontracts for other naval yards, building commercial tankers and container ships. And against all odds, Goodrich and Haggett persuaded their board of directors to fund a $14 million overhaul of the yard. The renovation would introduce a process called modular construction and put BIW back on its industry's cutting edge.

Modular construction reflected a fundamental change in the nature of warships. In the age of wooden ships the assembly of a vessel's structure had generally consumed more time and effort than installing its fittings. Shipwrights laid down a timber backbone and then labored under the sun to attach ribs, decks, and masts. But warships had evolved. Steam replaced sail, electricity replaced candles, plumbing replaced slop buckets. Along came radar, electronics, and computers, with miles of wiring to knot them together. A ship's innards began to demand far more labor than its skeleton and skin.

But working inside the hull was unwieldy and tiresome, and therefore slow and expensive. The solution: build the ship in pieces, and stack the massive chunks as if building a toy boat from blocks. The advantages were nearly endless. Work proceeded in a workshop, not a cramped, half-built hull. Fittings and other components flowed easily into position. Even bathroom breaks were more convenient. Bath had long crafted small chunks of ships indoors, but the Japanese and Scandinavians had rebuilt entire shipyards based on the concept. Now BIW followed their lead. The Maine workers raised a 480-foot assembly hall that became the state's largest building. They erected a forty-story monster crane. Built to hoist modules the size of diesel locomotives, its candy-striped tower loomed above the river town, blurring local television reception.
11

The timing of the renovation was excellent. Bath would soon return to the ranks of naval shipbuilders, thanks to its revamped yard—and the innovative leader who had recently taken command of the navy.

AT FORTY-NINE
, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. was the youngest chief of naval operations (CNO) in U.S. history, and he swept into the navy's top office like a man in a hurry. In a flurry of mid-1970 edicts called Z-grams, Zumwalt cancelled burdensome “chicken regulations” such as the prohibition of beards and took steps to reduce sexism and racism. The new CNO also introduced a bold shipbuilding strategy called High-Low, which envisioned a fleet comprised of a few top-of-the-line ships—
Nimitz
-class aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and guided missile cruisers—and a large number of relatively inexpensive ones.
12
The plan drew fire from admirals accustomed to the navy's usual price-is-no-object approach, who argued that lesser warships would hinder, not help the fleet. But simple math showed that the navy, with too many World War II–era ships overdue for retirement, could not afford costly replacements.
13

In September, Zumwalt asked his ship designers to sketch out a “patrol frigate”: a lightly armed, twenty-knot escort craft to shepherd cargo ships.
14
They reported that a thirty-seven-hundred-ton frigate might be built for $50 million. The CNO cut the weight limit by three hundred tons and the price by $5 million. Then he told his ship designers to sharpen their pencils and get to work.
15

They roughed out a fairly typical construction for the patrol frigate—a steel hull with riblike frames every eight feet—but the compromises began immediately. Instead of half-inch plates of high-tensile alloy, the hull would be covered with medium steel just three-quarters as strong. The superstructure would be built of aluminum, a light metal that resists saltwater corrosion but burns at temperatures that only singe steel.
16
Tougher materials would buttress the structure at key points: the main deck and keel would be built of HY-80 steel, and strips of the double-strength alloy would run along the top of the hull.
17

Compromise followed compromise. Instead of a two-rail missile launcher, the frigate would carry the Mk 13, a “one-armed bandit” that reloaded after every shot.
18
Rather than state-of-the-art sonar, the frigate would get the smaller, less expensive, and less capable SQS-56; sonar
technicians called it the “Helen Keller” system. And the patrol frigate would receive the SPS-49 air-search radar in lieu of a “three-dimensional” model that could determine an aircraft's range, heading,
and
altitude—making it the navy's only missile ship whose long-range sensor could not tell the height of its targets. None of these sacrifices was easy. Zumwalt's designers soothed themselves with assurances that their patrol frigate would never be a frontline unit, and that there would always be other, more capable ships nearby.
19

How to arm this austere new ship? If planners fitted the slender hull with antiship Harpoon missiles and antiair Standard missiles, they would have to jettison the bulky pepperbox launcher that fired antisubmarine ASROC missiles—and then how would the frigate fight subs?
20
After a bit of thought, the planners proposed a bold move: ditch the ASROCs and rely on the ship's helicopter. This required a leap of faith; no antisubmarine warship had ever depended so heavily on its aircraft. But the LAMPS helicopter (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) was no ordinary rotorcraft. The LAMPS stalked its quarry with floating sonobuoy microphones and a chin-mounted radar. Stubby antenna swapped radar and sonar data with its mother frigate, allowing the ship's company and aircrew to draw a lethal net around their prey. By the time the
Roberts
came along, a LAMPS-equipped warship would be the surface navy's most lethal sub-killing machine.

The patrol frigate may have been built to economy-car standards, but it would move on Corvette engines: twin 20,000-horsepower General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines. These were marinized versions of GE's aircraft jet engines. Like their airborne cousins, marine gas turbines burn atomized fuel to spin a core at thousands of revolutions per minute. In an aircraft, thrust comes from the combustion's exhaust; in a ship, the whirling core is yoked through a reduction gear to the ship's screw. Compared to the hellish boiler rooms that powered steamships, gas turbines offered all sorts of benefits: they took up less space, required fewer engineers, could be started up with the press of a button. Gas turbine ships were the sports cars of the naval world, able to accelerate far faster then their steam-powered brethren. The engineers even added a bit of insurance: electrically powered, retractable outboard motors mounted beneath the forward superstructure. Dubbed auxiliary propulsion units
(APUs), the 325-horsepower units swung out in pods to help the ship maneuver in tight harbors—or in the event of catastrophic damage, pull it to safety at four or five knots, a feature the
Roberts
crew would one day find quite useful.
21

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