History of the Gray Lady

USS Long Beach CGN-9

The world’s first nuclear-powered surface warship, the USS Long Beach CGN-9 – a “heavy” guided missile cruiser – was originally intended to be the first of the nuclear “frigates” but would become the only ship in her class


Construction & Commissioning

The USS Long Beach was originally ordered as CLGN-160 but was reclassified CGN-160 in early 1957 and again reclassified as CGN-9 on 1 July 1957. The original light cruiser design evolved instead into the only ship of her class – a nuclear-powered equivalent of a traditional heavy cruiser.

The design kept growing as more and more systems were added and in the end – like an all-gun heavy cruiser in the battleship era – the missile-laden Long Beach was designed to support aircraft carriers while being capable of operating on her own.

Her keel was laid down on 2 December 1957 by Bethlehem Steel Co., Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts and from where she was launched on 14 July 1959.

During construction in January 1960, it was widely reported that Long Beach was sabotaged when anti-mine (degaussing) electrical cables were found to have been intentionally cut in three places. It was the second of three incidents reported at Fore River Shipyard at that time.


At her commissioning on 9 September 1961, the cruiser was christened by Mrs. Marian Swanson-Hosmer, wife of Rear Admiral Craig Hosmer (USNR, Ret.) and a Congressman from Long Beach, California and was reported to have cost $320 million ($2.77 billion today) which was over budget from earlier estimates of $250 million.

At the time, the Long Beach had the highest bridge of any ship smaller than an aircraft carrier and from the bridge you could actually look down onto the flight deck of the USS Enterprise.

Nuclear Powered

The ship was propelled by two nuclear reactors – one for each propeller shaft – Westinghouse C1W pressurized water reactors – identical to the reactors on the USS Enterprise CVN-65.

Controlled fission from the reactors generated extremely hot water under pressure that flowed through heat exchangers in steam generators producing high quality steam in these secondary closed water systems.

The steam generated drove dual General Electric turbines producing up to 80,000 shp (60 MW) and provided enough power to move the heavy cruiser at speeds in excess of 30 knots (35 mph / 56 kph).

The “Box”

The high box-like superstructure contained the SCANFAR system, consisting of the AN/SPS-32 and AN/SPS-33 phased array radars.

One of the reasons Long Beach was a single-ship class was because she was an experimental platform for these radars, which were precursors to the AN/SPY-1 phased array systems later installed on Aegis equipped Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

Weapons Systems

As originally built, the Long Beach had a long-range Talos twin-rail launcher aft and stepped twin-rail Terrier launchers forward.

In the late 1970s, Congress proposed fitting the Long Beach with the Aegis phased-array radar and weapons system and the FY1978 budget provided $371 million to begin the Aegis conversion.

Navy fears that such a conversion would imperil construction of new nuclear-propelled cruisers, combined with a reluctance from the Carter administration to take on the expense of this one-ship program, killed the plan.

She retained her original weapons and electronics until 1979, when the Talos system (launcher and radars) was removed, the space later being filled by two quad Armored Box Launchers (ABL) for Tomahawk cruise missiles.

A year later came the dismantling of the “billboard” antennas for the electronically scanned AN/SPS-32/33 3D radars that gave the bridge superstructure its unusual (and quite unstealthy) profile; the plating was then protected by 1.75 in {45 mm) of armor.

Forward of the bridge are the stepped pedestals for two SPG-55 missile guidance radars, a twin-rail Standard-ER SAM launcher on the 01 level and, well forward, another twin-rail launcher on the main deck.

Two more SPG-55s are mounted on stepped pedestals on the bridge roof.

Between the block bridge and the quadrapod lattice mainmast are the ASROC eight-cell box launcher and side-by-side 5-in (127-mm) single gun mounts; the 5-in guns addressed the embarrassing lack of close-in defense against small craft.

As part of the major refit in the 1980s, Harpoon quad canister launcher groups to port and starboard of the mainmast and stepped Phalanx Gatling-type Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) mounts were added aft.

Beginning Underway Operations

The USS Long Beach was first placed under the command of then-Captain Eugene Parks Wilkinson, who previously served as the first commanding officer of the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, the submarine USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and assigned to the Atlantic Fleet with her home port at Naval Station Norfolk.

The guided‑missile cruiser conducted extensive shakedown testing of her complex weapons and propulsion systems from 2 October to 16 December 1961 and her performance proved the nuclear cruiser a capable warship.

Between 28 December and 6 January 1962 she conducted operational tests of her missiles off Puerto Rico, then sailed for Bremerhaven, Germany, arriving 15 January for courtesy calls in north European ports.

Returning to Norfolk, Virginia on 7 February 1962, the Long Beach trained off the east coast and in the Caribbean and on April 10th she joined Atlantic Fleet as flagship for Admiral Robert L. Dennison, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, for exercises off the coasts of U.S. states North Carolina and Virginia.

During this training exercise the Long Beach was reviewed by President John F. Kennedy who noted that the Long Beach was vulnerable midship to attacks from a small vessel and two five-inch (127 mm) guns were added soon after.

Round the World Cruise

In 1964 the ship took part in Operation Sea Orbit, an around-the-world cruise of the United States Navy’s Task Force One, consisting of USS Enterprise (CVAN-65), USS Long Beach (CGN-9), and USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25).

Reminiscent of the cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907‑09, the extended cruise widely demonstrated the strategic mobility of U.S. naval nuclear‑powered surface forces, independent of normal fleet logistic support.

Over 58 days at sea, the Long Beach steamed over 30,000 miles at an average speed of 25 knots, without being refueled or resupplied.

In the course of the voyage, numerous foreign dignitaries visited the ship during visits off both coasts of Africa and in‑port calls at Karachi, Pakistan; Melbourne, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

USS Long Beach sailing with the Enterprise and Bainbridge during Operation Sea Orbit, 1964

Long Beach Moves to Long Beach

Back in Norfolk in late June 1965, the Long Beach resumed training and upkeep prior to her transfer to the Pacific Fleet. She sailed on February 28, 1966 for her new home port and namesake, Long Beach, California, arriving on March 15 1966.

The summer of 1966 was spent in training / orienting midshipmen in the tactics and operations involved in the modern nuclear Navy but when back in port, the ship proved to be very popular for public tours from the local Long Beach community on days when the naval base permitted access.

West Pacs / Viet Nam

After a period of leave and upkeep in the fall to prepare for her very first West Pac, the Long Beach sailed on November 7, 1966 from her home port, bound for the Far East.

During this initial cruise, the cruiser served primarily as the Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone (PIRAZ) unit in the northern Gulf of Tonkin. As such, her main responsibility was to “sanitize” returning US air strikes, ensuring that no enemy aircraft were attempting to evade identification by hiding amongst returning friendlies.

Additionally, the ship provided support for an on-board Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter unit.

During this tour, Long Beach was responsible for directing the downing of one Soviet-made AN-2 ‘Colt’ aircraft that was attempting to engage South Vietnamese naval units.

The shoot-down was executed by an F-4 Phantom II fighter under the control of a Long Beach Air Intercept Controller (AIC).

The cruiser returned to Long Beach, California in July 1967.

In 1968 the ship was redeployed to the Gulf of Tonkin, shooting down a MiG fighter plane with a RIM-8 Talos missile on May 23, 1968, at a range of 65 miles and in June of the same year, she downed another MIG, this one at 61 miles.

She also directed other MIG kills by American fighters and was the first ship to down an aircraft using SAMs in the Vietnam war. The incidents were not immediately publicized because it was feared the use of SAMs would undermine the 1968 Paris Peace Accords. Long Beach received a Navy Unit Commendation for the actions.

A Combat Action Ribbon for action was awarded the Long Beach on 26 April 1972, a few days after the Battle of Đồng Hới.

After Vietnam, the Long Beach performed routine duties in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean as well as providing escort duties in 1975 for an ad-hoc U.S. task force during the Mayagüez incident along the coastline of Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia).

Move to San Diego

After being home ported for a decade at her namesake city of Long Beach, the ship changed home ports to San Diego, California in 1975 and where she would remain for most of the nearly 20 years remaining of her active duty status.

The Long Beach and West Pac’s by now were becoming synonyms and in September of 1976 she left San Diego, bound for the orient on what would become her 7th West Pac deployment.

Upon returning home, the Talos missile system was removed in 1978, replaced by two 4-cell Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers that were installed aft.

1980’s

In early January of 1980, the Long Beach left her home port for what would become her 9th West Pac and 1980, the USS Long Beach rescued 114 Vietnamese boat people off the coast of Vietnam.

Returning from her West Pac, the Long Beach salied to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to undergo a mid-life conversion, during which time the SCANFAR system, consisting of the AN/SPS-32 and AN/SPS-33 radars, was removed from the forward superstructure and enhanced flagship facilities were installed, along with modern radars like the AN/SPS-48.

The Standard SM-2ER missiles and the associated modern electronics replaced the obsolete Terrier system. In addition, two Phalanx CIWS close-in weapon systems were installed, and the Harpoon Surface-to-surface missile launchers were re-sited.

Beginning in January of 1985, the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile system was installed, including two 4-cell Armored Box Launcher.

The Long Beach deployed throughout the 1980s, conducting Tomahawk cruise missile test launches, serving as an escort for the USS Missouri task force, and providing aircraft carrier escort support after the Gulf War of 1991, deploying to the region in May 1991 to support Operation Provide Comfort after Operation Desert Storm was over and major hostilities had ended in late February 1991.

Decommissioning

There was originally a plan to fully upgrade Long Beach with an Aegis Combat System in the early 1990s, requiring that her superstructure be completely rebuilt.

Due to cuts in the defense budget after the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the high operating and manpower costs compared to conventionally powered ships, the decision was revised to decommission all nuclear cruisers from the Navy as their reactor cores depleted.

They would be replaced by the Ticonderoga and Arleigh Burke classes, designed from the ground up with Aegis.

As Long Beach had been refueled during her 1970 refit, her third refueling was due in the early to mid-1990s. As a consequence, a decision was made to decommission her in 1994.

A deactivation ceremony took place July 2, 1994 at Norfolk Naval Station and the ship was then towed to Newport News Shipbuilding where her entire superstructure was taken off as well as having her nuclear reactors defueled and removed, along with any remaining radioactive parts and equipment in the engineering spaces.

After this work was completed in the winter of 1995, the hull was towed down through the Panama Canal and up to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

The USS Long Beach was decommissioned on May 1, 1995, nearly 36 years after first been launched and over 33 years since she had entered US Naval service.

Epilog

In July of 2012, the hull of the Long Beach was sold for recycling as prescribed for nuclear-powered vessels by Code 350 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington. It has been reported that Tacoma Metals won the rights to the hull with a winning bid of approximately $900,000.

However, as of last year the decommissioned ship’s hull and outer reactor compartments largely remain in long-term storage there at the naval yard in Bremerton with some rumors reporting that it will not be released to the scrap buyer until radiation levels around the two reactor compartments drop to safe levels.

That could take awhile…

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  1. I do appreciate the effort and yes, there is a lot some missing information with some minor corrections from the 60’s. Should we provide that here or on the post in the forum?

  2. Very informative you need to write a book about The Grey Lady!
    I served on her from Jan. 62 – Feb. 64!
    Got lots of stories to add!!!