Great name, ugly ship

Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt was a visionary to some during his tour of duty as Chief of Naval Operations. To others he was a pariah. Zumwalt led the Navy from May 1970 to July 1974. As a matter of fact, he left that post — one he assumed as the youngest CNO in Navy history — only a day before I took the oath to join.

The CNO was known for his looser regulations regarding hair and beards on sailors and beer in barracks vending machines. But he had the thankless job of keeping the Navy in tact during the end of the Vietnam War. That was a time marked by racial riots and widespread drug use among sailors.

I came to admire Zumwalt both during my time in the Navy and up ┬áto the 40 years since. I noted in his biography that the future CNO was a destroyer officer and CO before eventual promotion to flag rank. Although I only served one year, including one western and southern Pacific cruise, on a “tin can,” I was hooked on the older ships’ lines and profiles. So I can’t help but wonder what Zumwalt would have thought about the class of destroyers that would bear his name.


The way ships and whole classes of ships are designed usually take place over a number of years. The DDG-1000 class, which is of the Zumwalt line, began to take shape four or five years after he died in 2000. The ship is a guided missile destroyer that came out of the DD(X) program. The “DD” designation are the identifiers of hull numbers for destroyers that were built up until 1980 when the last Spruance-class ship was commissioned. The ship on which I served was a Gearing-class destroyer which was first laid down in 1944 and eventually launched in 1946. The Agerholm, my home away from home in 1977-78, was the oldest active duty destroyer serving in the Navy at that time.

The Zumwalt is scheduled to join the fleet next year. Two other destroyers are being built in that class, the USS Michael Monsoor and the USS Lyndon B. Johnson. The former ship is named for Master-at Arms 2nd Class Monsoor, who was a SEAL posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. Johnson, of course, was the president of the US from 1963-1969, and a World War II Navy Officer.

No doubt, the Zumwalt and its class will be among the most technologically engineered warship in history with advanced electronics and weaponry. She (as ships are referred to) will be 210 feet longer than the WWII era ship on which I served. The widest point of the ship will be double that of as the Agerholm’s width. The “official” speed for the Zumwalt is about the same for all Navy ships, around 30-35 knots, as actual speeds are classified. A big difference between World War II–Vietnam destroyers is in crew size. The Zumwalt class will carry almost half as many crew members. Another big difference is both in missions and armament to carry out those missions.

The old DD-826, my ship, was primarily in the anti-submarine warfare business. It fired torpedoes both through tubes and from rocket launchers. In the early 60s it was the first ship ever to fire a nuclear-powered anti-submarine rocket, or ASROC. With the ship’s two “big guns,” the two 5-inch/38 cannons, the ship could engage in offshore gunfire support. She did so in both Korea and Vietnam. The ship was hit by North Korean gunfire.

The USS Agerholm fires a nuclear-tipped torpedo from a rocket launcher in  1962. Fifteen years later I would ride this beaut
The USS Agerholm fires a nuclear-tipped torpedo from a rocket launcher in 1962. Fifteen years later I would ride this beaut

The Zumwalt carries a variety of missile launchers including those for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles, ASROC, 155mm cannons, among others. The ship can likewise carry two helicopters.

The electronic sensing systems on board are probably too complicated for me to even talk about, if they are not classified, which they probably are. This leaves the design for me to squawk about.

The Zumwalt class will be that of “stealth” destroyers. Take a look at the picture and you will find that DDG-1000 looks nothing like your father’s or grandfather’s tin can. The strange lines and angles of the ship will likely leave enemy radar-watchers without a clue that probably the most lethal destroyer in naval history is coming. It will be a problem for our aggressors. It will be a bit exasperating for me, as well.

You see, all the weird design is, well, I hate to say it, but it is truly butt ugly. Through history, ships have been objects of beautiful design, even if these objects are meant to kill and create havoc. A naval ship is something more than a machine or tank. It, she, or she it, guys (and gals) live on these ships for years or more at a time. Some of us sailors call her home, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett. These ships also act as an art work of our country. Often, we invite locals from other nations onboard to visit the attractive ship from other lands. People from Australia and New Zealand thought ours was a nice-looking ship, I remember them saying. Even the Red Chinese sailors we encountered in Jakarta stood and looked admiringly at our ship.

Given, you wouldn’t want to see your ship sunk by an enemy missile. My ship was sunk by a “friendly” missile. It should have bore a happy face :). But I have seen the pictures of my ship several hundred feet down on the Pacific floor off the coast of San Diego. The Agerholm was sunk during missile testing in the early 1980s. More recently I’ve seen a video of the actual attack, which would have likely blown me to smithereens whether I was at battle stations or chow. I don’t really like to watch the video or see the pictures of our ship at the bottom of the ocean.

So it is a great idea to have a stealth ship. We want to outrun, and hide, from the enemy. Perhaps some day they will have an ability to build attractive “warships” again. Until then … well, sorry Bud.





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