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American Shipbuilding, Navy Maintenance Past and Present: Keeping the Fleet Fit to Fight

Sept. 23, 2014 | By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 181206-N-ZW259-9790
Part One of a 3-part series

A ship rejoining the fleet after a major overhaul is nothing new in the Navy. But 70 years ago today, when USS West Virginia (BB 48) returned to Pearl Harbor, it was a momentous event. West Virginia was the last, and most heavily damaged, of the 18 ships salvaged after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. Her return to the fleet would prove to the enemies of the U.S. that despite being knocked back on the ropes, the America had not thrown in the towel. West Virginia would serve valiantly in the remaining battles of the Pacific campaign and was at the Sept. 2, 1945 Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay, along with more than 250 other Allied ships, mostly from the United States.

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 181206-N-ZW259-9787

Her commanding officer on the day of the attack, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his efforts to keep the ship afloat despite being mortally wounded by a bomb fragment from USS Tennessee, moored next to West Virginia. Another 105 "Wee Vee" Sailors were killed in the attack. As the smoke cleared on that day of infamy, it might have been difficult to see the crucial mistake made by the Japanese: They sunk a lot of ships, but they didn't take out Pearl Harbor's industrial and logistics capabilities. And folks who handle ship salvage know going down doesn't mean lights out for a ship. Her journey back to the fleet was arduous and fraught with complications and the work carried out by the salvage teams is unprecedented in the U.S. Navy's history. But it would not be the last time the Navy undertook a major overhaul of a severely damaged ship.

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 181206-N-ZW259-9789

It's been nearly 14 years since USS Cole (DDG 67) was attacked Oct. 12, 2000, while refueling at a Yemen port. A small boat laden with explosives struck the ship, killing 17 members of the crew, wounding 39 others and seriously damaging the destroyer. After 14 months of upgrades and repairs, the Navy's "Determined Warrior" returned to the fleet and full active duty April 19, 2002. The $250 million repair included removing and replacing more than 550 tons of steel, replacing two, 27-ton main engines and modules, installing a new stern flap to increase the ship's speed and fuel efficiency, replacing three gas turbines generators and installing new galley equipment. The repairs, completed by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems' Ingalls Operations, was overseen by the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Conversion and Repair (SUPSHIP) Pascagoula, the on-site representative of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) for assigned ship repair contracts awarded to the private sector.

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 181206-N-ZW259-9788

"This was a challenging repair process, due to the complexity of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and the pace of the repair effort," said now retired Capt. Phil Johnson, SUPSHIP Pascagoula, at a pierside ceremony that day in April. "The Navy/industry team set new benchmarks with this repair since certain portions of the repair, such as the removal and reinstallation of the starboard propulsion train, were conducted for the first time outside of new construction." Getting the ship repaired and back into the fleet, better than ever, sends a message to terrorists that we won't be defeated.

As the Navy adjusts to ever-changing global threats, the acquisition of new ships is only part of what it takes to achieve national security objectives. Maintaining, repairing, efficiently managing and modernizing the existing force is just as important. "If we do not conduct the appropriate maintenance and modernization at the correct time, then there is little hope of keeping our ships as viable assets throughout their entire expected service life," said Capt. Michael Malone, commanding officer of the Navy's Surface Maintenance Engineering Planning Program (SURFMEPP). "Maintenance and modernization are vital events in the life of a ship designed to maintain their military value, keeping our ships battle ready and capable of projecting power and defending our nation's vital interests."

Part two of this 3-part series tomorrow will be USS West Virginia's journey from the bottom of the harbor to 'fit to fight."