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Sea Stories: Launching, Commissioning and Decommissioning

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Sea Stories: #48 - Launching, Commissioning and Decommissioning

 

It is hard for a landsman to comprehend the bond sailors develop with their ships.  It is often a deep, lifelong affair, an abiding affection which transcends time and distance.   Your ship is your home for a time.  She conveys you to faraway lands, and is the scene of unforgettable experiences.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously wrote “In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.”  Even a peacetime sailor has seen his share of risks aboard his ship.  Her hull is your shelter.  She provides your food, your water and your heat or cooling.  The strength of her hull and the power of her engines are all that stand between you and the incredible power of a hungry ocean.  You stand watch upon countless watch, hour upon tedious hour upon her decks, and you learn her unique sounds, motions and ways.  Your time aboard her is but one tiny part of a much longer continuum of service, shared by generations of crew members across several decades.  And in time of war or disaster, she will either see you safely through, or become the site of your burial service, or perhaps even serve as your eternal tomb.

Ships are living, breathing things, more than the sum of the human lives aboard them.  They have individual personalities; true, the Captain's own personality has a lot to do with the character of a particular ship's nature, but not everything.  Other key crew members put their mark upon her as well.  Ships can be happy, or unhappy.  They can be lucky, or decidedly unlucky, to the point of being considered jinxed.  Sailors are a superstitious lot, and have been for millennia, probably because human experience has noted this phenomenon repeatedly across the eons.  So sailors have long understood this reality, and deeply ingrained traditions have formed in recognition of it.  The ceremonies attendant to bringing a ship to life, and ultimately laying it to rest are excellent examples of these traditions. 

Keel Laying:  A ship begins its life when its central structural member, it's keel, is laid down in the  building dock.  Modern ships are often built in sections which are assembled in order and later welded together, but the central lower strength girder is her keel and the first one gets laid  somewhere.  That is usually marked by a ceremony.  It is akin to the egg being fertilized in the womb, and the very first spark of life flickering into existence.  I know of one important ship which serves our Navy today, USS ARLEIGH BURKE (DDG-51).  She is the lead ship of the finest class of destroyers which has ever gone to sea, and was named for a famed World War II hero, later an Admiral and the Chief of Naval Operations.  Read his biography if you want to see what a fighting sailor can look like.   In only the fourth event of its type since the civil war, USS ARLEIGH BURKE was named for Admiral Burke while he was still alive, and he was present at her commissioning on the 4th of July, 1991.   But well before that, he welded his  signature onto her keel at her keel laying ceremony.  It remains there today.

Another ancient practice was the placing of a silver coin below the base of the central mast of a ship, as an offering to the gods for luck, or should she sink, as payment for the souls aboard her's passage across the River Styx and into the underworld.  In ancient greek mythology, Charon the Ferryman would not transport the soul of anyone across the black river without payment, and they would wander the far riverbank for eternity.  This is why corpses were buried with coins (an obolus in greek and latin) upon their eyes or in their mouth; as fare payment for the departed soul.  And some ships even today have a silver coin placed below their mast when it is erected, where it remains for the life of the ship.  (As a personal note, there is a silver coin beneath the mast of my small sailboat.  I cover all my bases.....)

Launching/Christening:  When the ship under construction is ready enough, she must be moved from her building dock into the water.  Ships are built on the land, but are built for the sea.    And while she will on occasion be drydocked again, this is the very first time she will touch the water that is her natural element and where she will spend the preponderance of her life.  The Launching Ceremony is akin to a human being born, and entering the world it will ever after inhabit.  In our Christian society, the ship is usually formally christened, and given her official name, before God and an assembled group of witnesses, with prayers for her safety and that of all the souls who will sail in her.   She is decorated with flags and bunting.  The ship's sponsor (almost invariably a woman, usually a political appointment, someone with money or association with the ship's history, namesake or building yard) stands on a platform beside the ship's bow with a bottle of champagne suspended on a rope.  At the key moment, she pronounces the ship's name and smashes the bottle on the bow, where the bubbling spirit wets the hull (this is in fact an ancient historical echo of the pagan practice of offering a libation sacrifice to the gods while asking for their protection and benevolence towards the ship.)  The keel blocks are struck away, and the vessel down slides into the water on rails with a resounding splash, and (hopefully) bobs there proudly and upright.  (Traditionally, this motion was backwards, with her stern entering the water first, followed by the bow.  But in modern yards, ships are sometimes launched sideways.  Browser search “ship launching” for some interesting videos.)

Commissioning:  Construction continues, and eventually, the ship is completed, sea trialed and accepted by the Navy from its builders.  It is time to bring the ship into active service, placing her “in commission.”  This impressive ceremony marks the beginning of her active career as a warship.  Guests are seated on the pier and the ship's crew is paraded in ranks behind them.  Everyone is in dress uniform and festive bunting marks this as a special occasion.  Speeches are made, the Captain is formally presented the ship and ordered to bring it to life.

Up to this point, the ship has been sitting lifeless, motionless,  There are no flags flying, and no one visible aboard.  When the order is given, at first, nothing changes.  Then the ship speaks, for the first time.  Her whistle lets out a long, piercing blast.  High atop the mast, a radar begins to turn.  Then another.  Then her gun mounts and missile launchers begin to move, as if seeking an enemy.  Flags are hoisted aloft, and full-dress signal flags start to rise above her deck and flutter in the breeze.  The ship transforms from a dead, cold thing to a moving, living thing, before the eyes of the assembled guests.  And the crew runs aboard to man the rails, taking their places as  the original members of what will over the next several decades be many crews.  Historically, ships had teak wood decks, and each crew member would receive a piece of wood left over from construction as a memento of his  service in that first, original crew.  Such original crewmembers are still called “plankowners.” 

Decommissioning:  After many intervening decades of service, a ship is determined to no longer be technologically relevant.  Her hull and engines are tired, her structure battered by sea service, and her weapons systems and sensors are far behind the state of the art.  It is time to retire her as an active warship, or to take her “out of commission.”  The last crew ever to serve the ship has spent many months preparing her for this day.  All weapons are removed, she is defueled and her stores are taken ashore.  All flammables are removed,  and all accountable equipment inventoried and turned in for reissuance to another ship if needed.  Everything else is removed, and in many cases simply trashed. 

Some items are presented to crew members as mementos; I know the last Chaplain assigned to USS CHARLES F. ADAMS (DDG-2), who is an ordained Episcopal priest.   Ships with assigned chaplains have a standard-issue portable field communion set.  It contains everything a minister needs to administer the sacrament of holy communion or last rites, in an OD green nylon satchel which can be easily  transported to wherever the padre needs to hold that service.  The ship had the bag embroidered with the ship's name and dates of service, and presented the communion set to my friend as his memento upon decommissioning.  I once took communion from him from that historic Navy service.

Finally, on the appointed day, a ceremony is held formally retiring the ship, with assembled guests.  Every living former Commanding Officer is invited to attend, and many do.  Lots of former crewmembers likewise are invited and come from all over the USA to attend.  And when the order is given, the ship's equipment is stilled, her crew marches from her deck onto the pier, and her flags, ensign and commission pennant are hauled down for the last time.  And in a moment, she goes from being a living, breathing thing, a servant of our nation with a long record of duty, to a cold and lifeless hunk of steel.  She will never again move under her own power.

So  what happens to ships when they are decommissioned?  Some are kept in a state  of preservation (informally called “being mothballed”) so they can be reactivated if needed in a national emergency.  Others are given or sold to allied navies who can still get some use out of them.  One of my former ships continues to serve in the Turkish Navy.  A few are taken to sea and used as targets, sunk by weapons fire from younger siblings, thereby performing one final service by training a new generation of fighting sailors or testing new generations of weapons.  A very few are intentionally sunk as scuba diving attractions or artificial reefs.  But most are ignominiously sold for recycling of their materials , auctioned off and broken up as scrap metal.  To my way of thinking this is the worst possible fate.  The noble old girl served our country for decades,standing her watch of deterrence and perhaps getting in a few licks against our enemies.  She  carried many generations of sailors across countless ocean miles.  She earned honorable retirement.  And one day, she is hauled up on shore, cut into pieces and hauled away to a smelter.  Nothing remains but the pride which her crew will always have in her when her name is mentioned.  But  a lucky few will live again; the USN likes to recycle ship names, so in time a new warship may be given the name and start the process all over again.

 

 

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USS GRIDLEY (CG-21) in her prime.  This always makes me smile.

 

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USS GRIDLEY (CG-21) at the breakers in Texas in 2005.  This always makes me a bit sad.

Edited by Gunboat1
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Brilliant;

I'm infatuated with big ships, and Naval actions. Drachinifel is a fantastic YT channel with tons of great content on the big Warships.

I toured the USS Wisconsin last year. Brought tears to my eyes.

 

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2 hours ago, M&P15T said:

Brilliant;

I'm infatuated with big ships, and Naval actions. Drachinifel is a fantastic YT channel with tons of great content on the big Warships.

I toured the USS Wisconsin last year. Brought tears to my eyes.

 

I attended USS NEW JERSEY's  recommissioning ceremony in December 1982.  Talk about impressive,  watching that behemoth come to life.  

Edited by Gunboat1
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37 minutes ago, Gunboat1 said:

I attended USS NEW JERSEY's  recommissioning ceremony in December 1982.  Talk about impressive,  watching that behemoth come to life.  

Duuuuude.....

I have a fantasy of all three Iowas being recommissioned, and sailing the globe again. 

Unless you've actually seen one in person, toured one, you have no idea what the words "amazing" and "impressive" mean. 

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32 minutes ago, M&P15T said:

Duuuuude.....

I have a fantasy of all three Iowas being recommissioned, and sailing the globe again. 

Unless you've actually seen one in person, toured one, you have no idea what the words "amazing" and "impressive" mean. 

A former shipmate was NEW JERSEY's DCA when she was recommissioned.  He gave me an after hours, multi-hour tour of her from truck to keel one duty day evening.  She was and is incredible. 

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I served on three ships during my time in the navy.  2 have since been scrapped.  The last one is still serving.  My favorite ship was the oldest, the keel being laid 4 years before I was born.  I had the honor of sailing on her final cruise.  It's a shame she was scrapped.  She would have made a fine museum ship.

 

rangerlastcruise.jpg

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