Thoughts on the Navy’s Future From the Oldest Commissioned Warship Afloat in the World

By Cmdr. Robert S. Gerosa Jr, USN

As I stand on the quarterdeck of the great ship Constitution I am often struck by the deep connections this mighty ship has with the past.  She always seemed to keep turning up even after her front line service ended.  Today though, I am not writing about the past so much as I am trying to think about the future,  the future of the Constitution as well as the future of the U.S. Navy; and the future looks bright.

BOSTON (June 15, 2017) USS Constitution sits in Dry Dock One, in Charlestown Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy Photo by Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Erin Bullock/Released)

The funny thing about evaluating the present and future is always perspective. In the moment things always look worse than they are, and therefore almost paint the future as being bleak.  Believe it or not the Constitution and her sister ships were once a troubled shipbuilding project, much like some the U.S. Navy has experienced since. It was a new design with exotic parts sourced from distant locales and multiple builders for two designs. The future success these ships would have was in no way represented by the pains of the building process.

For Constitution it took three attempts just to get the ship launched, let alone out patrolling for which she was very much needed in late 1797 and into 1798 (our Naval conflict with the French was heating up and there were very few assets with which to protect our merchants even in our home waters). In fact her first Captain was not particularly enamored with the sailing characteristics of his new vessel and both he and his crew ran into a string of bad luck during their first cruise. The ship itself didn’t end up proving its true superiority until the war of 1812 when she was 15 years old, where her unorthodox design proved ahead of her time in defeating not one but four British warships in three separate engagements. To give this some more perspective, the British didn’t even sail many vessels 15 years old back in 1812, especially not their front line warships.

 

BOSTON HARBOR (June 3, 2011) USS Constitution greets USS Carr (FFG 52) in Boston Harbor during an underway Battle of Midway commemoration. The underway honored approximately 200 members of Gold Star Families who lost loved ones in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom and the Navy’s victory at Midway Island in World War II. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kathryn E. Macdonald/Released)

 

I am assured that the best and brightest is in front of us because of the examples of the past.  Even though we may not see it now, the warships that we are constructing today have similar innovations and qualities that were imbued in the Constitution. The ships of the Navy today may have their challenges and their limitations, but their best days are ahead of them if the example of Constitution can be applied to them. Many ascribe Constitution’s success to her design and construction, or even her armament but in my view her real strength, and every other modern ship’s strength, lay in her crew. The real iron of “Old Ironsides” was the flesh and blood professional crew of Sailors and Marines who volunteered to serve their country.

This strength continued to the Sailors of the Hartford who sailed under the guns of Mobile Bay to complete the blockade during the Civil War, to the Sailors of Olympia who gallantly assured the destruction of the Spanish fleet at anchor in Manila.  Next this strength allowed the Navy to sustain our allies through convoy operations during both World Wars and resurrected our fleet from the from the dead in the Pacific. It sustained the landing force at Inchon and the Riverine Forces in Vietnam. This strength was evident as a mine broke the keel of the Samuel B. Roberts, but her crew still brought her home. The Mason most recently felt this strength as she fought off three missile attacks in the Gulf of Aden.

It is because of these examples that I know our future is also secure.  As Admiral George Anderson said “The Navy has both a tradition and a future–and we look with pride and confidence in both directions.” The future ships and crews will make names for themselves just as distinct and proud as those that came before. Indeed I am honored to have led so many of these young Sailors as they start their careers and look forward to reading of their adventures in the future.

United States Frigate Constitution Chased by a British Fleet. Oil on copper by J. Font Mahan, 1841. Depicts the “great escape” of Constitution, 17-19 July 1812, off the coast of New Jersey. Courtesy Navy Art Collection.

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