Your Ship Has Just Come In

© 2018 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

Why is it that a country’s most famous ships seem to take on a personality of their own, as if they are living, breathing entities like movie stars, athletes or entertainers? There’s no question that this is true. Everyone, no matter what their age, demographic group or generational category, can name ships that are noteworthy to them. They may be military naval vessels, they may be private/commercial yachts or boats, but everyone has their favorites.

There have been a lot of famous ships through the years, from a lot of countries. For this discussion, we’re going to limit it to American vessels.  (That means no Titanic, no Bismarck, no Yamato, no Queen Elizabeth. Sorry.) In no particular order, here are some that come to mind:

Maine

A late-1890’s battleship, the Maine was assigned to protect American interests in Cuba during its war of independence from Spain. Three weeks after its arrival in Havana, the Maine was wracked by a tremendous explosion on the night of February 15, 1898 and quickly sank, claiming the life of 260 of its crew of 374. No definitive cause for the explosion was ever determined, but the initial theory of an external mine has been generally discounted in favor of an accidental internal fire that subsequently ignited the ships armament magazines.

The sinking itself and the hyperbolic press coverage of the event was the cause of considerable American political bellicosity towards Spain, serving as a major catalyst of the Spanish-American war later in 1898. The sinking gave rise to the famous saying, “Remember the Maine!”

Constitution

Perhaps the most acclaimed U.S. Navy warship of all time, the U.S.S. Constitution was a 44-gun 3-masted frigate, used by the American Navy in the War of 1812 against Britain. She is best known for her dramatic victories in several one-on-one confrontations with major British warships. In one of these battles (against the British Frigate HMS Guerriere), cannon fire from the enemy ship supposedly bounced harmlessly off the thick, sturdy oak sides of the Constitution’s hull, causing its crew members to exclaim, “The hull must be made of iron!” Hence, perhaps the most famous nickname in all of naval history—“Old Ironsides”—was born.

Arizona

A Pennsylvania-class battleship completed and commissioned in 1916, the Arizona was larger and more powerful than the Nevada-class ships that preceded her. Even though Arizona was fully active two years before WWI ended in 1918, it saw no action in that war, serving mostly in training duties. After WWI, the Arizona played a prominent role in diplomatic service, showing off American sea power in missions around the world. A major modernization took place between 1931 and 1941, which included more powerful engines and some rudimentary anti-aircraft gunnery.  The lack of effective anti-aircraft defense—common to all warships in the late 1930’s/early 1940’s, not just Arizona—would prove disastrous during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In Japan’s December 7th, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, several Japanese warplanes broke through the American defensive airspace around Arizona and scored numerous bomb hits on the ship. One of these penetrated the forward deck and exploded below in the ship’s magazine, causing a massive, catastrophic explosion that tore the ship in two. Arizona sank quickly, with the loss of 1177 U.S sailors, the largest single source of the more than 2300 U.S. personnel lost in the attack. A permanent memorial was built in Pearl Harbor over the sunken remains of the ship. Amazingly, the Arizona itself still leaks two quarts of oil a day into the harbors waters.

Missouri

Entering service with the US Navy in the latter stages of WWII in 1944, the Missouri was the most advanced battleship to see service with the Navy. Compared to the Arizona, the Missouri was an entirely different caliber of ship—far larger, faster and with incomparably more advanced weaponry. It represented the most modern thinking in battleship design. Despite its impressive battle record in the closing stages of the war, the Missouri is probably best known for being the site of the official signing ceremony of Japan’s surrender to the United States on September 2, 1945, bringing the hostilities of WWII to an official close.

After participating in combat operations during the Korean conflict from 1950-1953, Missouri was decommissioned in 1955, the battleship having been supplanted by the aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine as the primary offensive weapons of the Navy.

However, in the late 1980’s Missouri was modernized and re-commissioned and took active part in shore bombardments during the 1991 Gulf War, firing several hundred rounds of 16-in shells. The ship was finally decommissioned for good in 1992, after an active combat career spanning nearly a half-century.

Missouri was also featured prominently in two high-profile movies: 1992’s Under Siege with Steven Seagal and the 2012 science fiction thriller Battleship. Known by the nicknames Mighty Mo and Big Mo, the Missouri is unquestionably one the most famous American ships ever.

Nautilus

The name “Nautilus” has graced at least two famous ships. One was the fictitious submarine in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” in which the book’s main character, Captain Nemo, leads the submarine Nautilus on a series of scientific adventures and battles against giant sea creatures. The book quite accurately describes and depicts the modern submarine, decades before such vessels became a reality.

Although the submarine played a major role in both WWI and WWII, the basic technology of submarines was largely unchanged from 1914-to the early 1950’s: small ships with narrow hulls, diesel engines for running on the surface and electric engines with rechargeable power supplies for limited-time operation when fully submerged. Not only were the electric engines severely restricted in their below-surface operating time, the breathable air inside the submarine was also a limiting factor in the submarine’s underwater effectiveness. Unless those limitations could be overcome, the submarine’s potential impact would always be limited to a certain level.

In 1954, those limitations were shattered forever with the advent of the U.S.S Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Free of needing oxygen or petroleum-based fuel for its propulsion, the Nautilus could spend a nearly unlimited amount of time fully submerged, and power from the nuclear reactor drove on-board air- and water-purification systems as well. For the first time, submarines could roam the oceans at will, virtually undetected, for almost unlimited periods of time. As Jules Verne’s Nautilus ushered in a new era of thinking about undersea vessels, so the U.S.S. Nautilus changed forever the importance and impact the submarine had on the balance of world power.

Enterprise

Although many U.S. Navy ships have carried the name Enterprise, the one we’re talking about here is the WWII aircraft carrier. Completed and commissioned before America entered the war in 1941, Enterprise participated in every major Pacific action and earned more battle stars—20—than any other U.S. ship. Probably her most famous action occurred during the pivotal Battle of Midway, in which her aircraft were directly responsible for the sinking of three Japanese carriers. Known by the nickname “The Big E,” she was also called “The Gray Ghost,” since the Japanese mistakenly thought they’d sunk her on several occasions, only to find out the hard way that she was still very much alive.

Tough, versatile and resilient, the Big E’s impressive accomplishments epitomized America’s successful carrier-oriented naval strategy in the Pacific in WWII.

There have been other notable ships named Enterprise: 1961 saw the debut of the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, named Enterprise as a fitting tribute to the famed battle veteran of WWII. And there is the well-known fictional Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. But it is the WWII aircraft carrier Enterprise for whom the spot on this list is most deservedly held.

Whether real or imagined, military or commercial, large or small, famous ships through the years hold an unshakable place in our collective consciousness, evoking a fascinating mixture of pride, respect and amusement.

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