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Unique Ships of the U.S. Navy

Several similar Arleigh Burke destroyers. US Navy Photo

Several similar Arleigh Burke destroyers. US Navy Photo

Navies like their ships to be as similar as possible – for good reason.

It’s easier to train sailors on similar ships and systems, it’s cheaper to build many ships of the same design in bulk and they’re cheaper to operate and maintain.

Late last year, when the U.S. Navy decided to base its next generation amphibious warship design, the LX(R), on an existing hull it cited cost savings in design, maintenance and manpower as justification.

But occasionally, the mission demands something special, something unique.

Throughout its history, while it developed classes of similar hulls for the bulk of its work, the Navy created several specialized platforms to test experimental capabilities or built one-offs for a unique requirement.

The following list features singular ships of the service: a ship that could silently lob dynamite with pressurized air, a test bed to bring aircraft stealth to the waves and a barge with the single mission of supplying World War II sailors with thousands of gallons of ice cream.

The Camel Carrier

Camels being loaded on USS Comfort.

Camels being loaded on USS Comfort.

In 1855, Congress approved a plan developed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to import camels as pack animals for the U.S. Army operating in the American Southwest.

The camels were also considered for use as a long-range mounted force that could drive “hostile Indians out of the country.” The storeship USS Supply was refitted with special hatches, stables, hoists and a “camel car” for the sole purpose of loading and transporting dromedaries.

Once the first herd of camels was obtained in North Africa, Supply as further modified to compensate for the towering humps of the camels by cutting away part of the main deck. The camels were delivered to Texas where their potential was recognized but the plan was never fully implemented due to the advent of the Civil War.

Most of the camels were sold to zoos and circuses but a few were released into the wild and were still being spotted roaming the Southwest in the early 20th century. The episode was documented in a 1957 issue of Proceedings magazine

The Dynamite Cruiser

USS Vesuvius in 1891. US Navy Photo

USS Vesuvius in 1891. US Navy Photo

Commissioned in 1890, USS Vesuvius was the first and only U.S. ship to be outfitted with dynamite guns.

Vesuvius’ three pneumatic guns could fire 550-lbs high explosive shells at targets up to a mile away and were used during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to bombard enemy emplacements in Cuba.

Since the guns quietly propelled shells with compressed air, it was reported that the enemy became unnerved because of their inability to hear any boom preceding incoming fire. Their success as a terror weapon aside, dynamite guns quickly fell out of favor due to their lack of accuracy and high maintenance needs.

Vesuvius’ dynamite guns were removed and replaced with torpedo tubes. The ship later suffered the indignity of almost sinking itself when one it its torpedoes circled back and slammed into the hull.

The Ice Cream Barge

Sailor eating ice cream.

Sailor eating ice cream.

With the ban on alcohol aboard ships in 1914, the US Navy sought to offset the loss of alcohol at sea and found that ice cream was popular among the sailors. It was so popular that the Navy borrowed a refrigerated concrete barge from the Army Transportation Corps in 1945 to serve as a floating ice cream parlor. At a cost of $1 million, the barge was towed around the Pacific to provide ice cream to ships smaller than a destroyer that lacked ice cream making facilities. The Navy proudly announced that the vessel could manufacture 10 gallons of ice cream every seven minutes and had storage capacity of 2000 gallons.

The Wackiest (Spy) Ship in the Army

Spy ship USS Echo

Spy ship USS Echo

At a time when behemoth steel U.S. aircraft carriers and battleships dueled with the Imperial Japanese Navy, the twin-masted scow schooner USS Echo logged 40,000 nautical miles while conducting reconnaissance and delivering supplies throughout the Pacific between 1942 and 1944.

Loaned to the U.S. by New Zealand, the wooden-hulled Echo was valued for its ability to evade radar and blend in with civilian vessels while observing Japanese movements.

The ship’s exploits and unusual arrangement of being commanded by a Navy officer at sea and an Army officer in port served as the inspiration for the movie and TV series “The Wackiest ship in the Army.”

Echo was returned to New Zealand towards the end of the war and by the 1990s had fallen into such neglect that it was on the verge of being sold for firewood when it was bought and turned into a bar and museum.

USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer

USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer

USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer

Ostensibly a maritime geology research ship, the Hughes Glomar Explore was actually a covert submarine recovery vessel. Built by the eccentric genius Howard Hughes, the ship was designed to raise the Soviet submarine K-129, which sank in the Pacific in 1968. The Soviets had been unable to find the wreckage of the submarine but were confident that it was at an inaccessible depth.

However, the U.S. Navy managed to locate the doomed sub which prompted the 1974 CIA operation Project Azorian to recover the K-129 and its valuable codebooks and nuclear missiles.

While feigning a search for mineral deposits, the Hughes Glomar Explorer lowered a powerful claw from its hull to grasp the sub and bring it to the surface. The plan was succeeding until the sub snapped as it was being lifted, causing the sections with most of the secrets the CIA sought to again fall to the ocean floor and unsalvageable.

Or so the CIA claims.

The Naval Academy ‘Brig’

USS Reina Mercedes, housing for misbehaving midshipmen.

USS Reina Mercedes, housing for misbehaving midshipmen.

Unlike students at other colleges, unruly midshipmen at the Naval Academy were never put on probation.

Instead they were forced to live on a prison ship. That ship was USS Reina Mercedes, which had been captured in Cuba by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish American War.

The prize was initially sent to Boston as a receiving ship for new recruits waiting for their first assignments. It was then transferred to Annapolis in 1912 where it served several functions including barracks for midshipmen who had committed various infractions.

Although the ship was often referred to as a floating brig, rogue midshipmen ordered to live on board as punishment were not actually considered prisoners. The ship was really just a detention hall where misbehaving midshipmen had to return after completing their classes and drills.

The practice ended in 1940 and the ship was used primarily as quarters for academy personnel until it was sold for scrap in 1957.

Lake Michigan’s Aircraft Carrier

USS Wolverine in 1943 on Lake Michigan. US Navy Photo

USS Wolverine in 1943 on Lake Michigan. US Navy Photo

As an inland, side-wheel paddle aircraft carrier, USS Wolverine might fit better in steam-punk fiction. The ship had been the world’s largest passenger side-wheel steamer when it was built as the Seeandbee in 1912.

It was acquired by the Navy in 1942 and converted into an aircraft carrier to train pilots.

Operating a thousand miles away from the ocean on Lake Michigan, Wolverine provided a much-needed platform for pilots to practice their take-offs and landings.

Unfortunately, rookie pilots having to contend with the lack of wind of Lake Michigan and the failure of the ship’s paddle wheel to generate optimum speed resulted in the bottom of the lake being littered with Corsairs and Wildcats.

To this day, 60 aircraft are still believed to be in the water. The Wolverine and its sister training carrier USS Sable were decommissioned within months of the war’s end and eventually scrapped.

NR-1

NR-1

NR-1

While not the most famous deep diving submersible NR-1 could be the most interesting.

Entering service in 1969, “Nerwin” maybe the world’s smallest nuclear powered submarine. Manned by a crew of two officers, five nuclear-trained enlisted sailors and two researchers, the 400-ton boat was built to stay underwater at depths in excess of 2,000 feet and could rest on the sea floor for extended periods of time for both research and military missions.

“Following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the NR 1 was used to search for, identify, and recover critical parts of the Challenger craft,” according to an archived version of the U.S. Navy’s fact file.

The boat, built by General Dynamics Electronic Boat, was decommissioned in 2008.

Lockheed Martin’s Stealth Ship

Lockheed Martin's Sea Shadow

Lockheed Martin’s Sea Shadow

The Sea Shadow (IX-529) was an experimental ship built by Lockheed Martin in the 1980s to test the stealth technology used on the F-117 Nighthawk for possible use on submarines.

“In the early 1980s, the vessel was built modularly under tight secrecy by different manufacturers and assembled inside the Hughes Mining Barge (HMB), at Redwood City, Calif.,” according to a 2003 Navy news release.
“There, the HMB would be moved out to sea in the dead of night and halfway submerged, to let Sea Shadow out to be tested without being overly exposed to public observation.”

The Hughes Mining Barge was developed in tandem with the ship Glomar Explorer as part of Project Azorian.

The sharp angles of Sea Shadow made the ship appear smaller on radar and informed not only the design of the deckhouse of the Arleigh Burke destroyer but the ship of the antagonist in the 1997 James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.

The ship was based in San Diego, Calif. for years before the ship was sold for scrap in 2012.

R/V FLIP

The Floating Instrument Platform was developed in the early 1960s as a stable platform for open ocean research for the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

The 355-foot FLIP is towed to its research location horizontally and once in place it takes on 700 tons of seawater and goes vertical in a 20 minute process.

Once its bow is in the air, almost a football field worth of FLIP is underwater, creating a more stable platform than most other research ships.

The platform is designed to work in both vertical and horizontal configurations.

“Most rooms on FLIP have two doors. One to use when FLIP is horizontal, and one to use when FLIP is vertical. Things like bunk beds, toilets and stoves are built on swivels and gimbals, so they will turn along with FLIP,” according to ONR.
“Other things that would not rotate so well, like sinks, are built both horizontally and vertically in each room.”

The platform – still in service – is manned by five crew and can support 11 researchers and has an endurance of about a month.

The Navy’s Attack Hydrofoils

Navy Pegasus hydrofoil

Navy Pegasus hydrofoil

While many of the Navy’s unique ships were one-off experimental efforts, the service ordered six Pegasus-class hydrofoils in the 1970s.

The effort to buy the 260-ton hydrofoils – comparatively small by Navy ship standards — was kicked off by then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt to beef up the Navy’s numbers of surface combatants.

Armed with eight RGM-84 Harpoon anti-surface missiles and a 76mm deck gun , the Pegasus-class were designed to be quickly deployed to interdict surface threats.

Riding on the foils, a Pegasus could travel at 48 kts or about 55 miles per hour. The ships were built by aircraft manufacturer Boeing and were planned for sale to allied countries. However, international interest in the program waned when the Navy halted the program in favor of heavier ships.

The Navy based the class in Key West and decommissioned the ships in 1993.

The Smallest Aircraft Carrier

USS Baylander

USS Baylander

The stumpy 113-f, 160-ton Baylander (IX-514), while in Navy service, was billed as the world’s smallest aircraft carrier.

With a flight deck the size of an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, the Baylander served as a helicopter training for the Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and National Guard.

“Since it began service as a helicopter trainer in 1986, it has completed 120,000 error-free helicopter landings, with the record being 346 landings in one day on June 10, 1988,” read a release on the ship.

Commissioned in 1968, the ship saw service in the Vietnam War and was transferred to Florida for its later training role.

Since decommissioning, the ship is still in use with new civilian owners.

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  • AKO

    The financialization of the American economy

    American De-Industrialization
    Continues Unabated

    American industrial collapse

    U.S real economy will collapse

    U.S military will also collapse

    Like the collapse of the Roman Empire

    • Pizzicato Five Fan

      Can’t you just use real sentences? Sheesh.

  • Bhess

    They got rid of the Pegasus class but yet it could demolish a LCS class now.

    • old guy

      AMEN, it was just too much snip for the battleship admirals. And while we are at it. don’t forget the Zumwalt sponsored, 95+ knot SES100, a surface effect ship. Program would have led to a 100+kt 3000 ton, frigate, killed by lesser people when he left.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        The excuse used to get rid of the Pegasus class was that their range was too limited. Too bad, they were well ahead of their time, and packed quite a wallop.

        • old guy

          Auxiliary fuel could be carried in high fineness ratio, low drag disposable pods at the strut/foil intersection. The range bugaboo was b.s. from the start. Incidentally, did you know that PHM on foils could outmaneuver an Excocet missile, fired from over 10 miles away?

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            You could also lose the Harpoon’s out of one of Quad-Launchers and fill the Launcher/Canisters with JP-8 Jet Fuel instead…

        • USNVO

          The PHMs cost more than 3 times the cost to procure an equivalent, non-hydrofoil ship. Life cycle costs were even higher. All for 8 harpoons (with no helo for OTH) and a 76mm gun when the Navy needed air defense and ASW. The entire 100kt Navy was killed because it was too expensive, filled a niche mission that countered what was basically a limited threat, and oh yeah, it was too expensive.

          • old guy

            Your 3X cost is fallacious. The only way to get anywhere near there is to include ALL the hydrofoil development costs, including the USS High Point and the small experimental boats. the ASW argument falls also because a PHM could tow a SQR 18 off foil.The Air Defense argument is also wrong, because there were variants designed which sacrificed harpoon space for AA gear. OTH helos could operate from platformed PHMs but they are quite useless because we use satellite (GPS) targeting. They had the most punch for the buck of ANY ship. You talk as if the PHMs would be the ONLY ships in the Navy.
            It was this kind of thinking that added so much junk to the 51s that the first flight had to sacrifice aircraft handling.

          • Tony Veilleux

            I operated with 2 or 3 of them in the late 80’s when they looking for what to do with the LST’s. We acted as a movable port, with fuel, repair parts and berthing when not in Drug Interdiction. We had a van aboard that controlled the blimp used by the Coast Guard. Thought they would of kept them and some of the LST’s, but Washington “thinkers” thought differently

          • old guy

            Speaking of blimps, do you know that during WW2 no ship was ever sunk in a convoy escorted by blimps?

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            It similar to Operation Market Time and Operation Game Warden used in Vietnam, between the years of 1964 and 1975…

    • Secundius

      @ Bhess.

      On the Independence, Yes. On the Freedom, No. At Maximum Speed Freedom is capable of 47.5-knots with a range of ~1,350-nm. Pegasus is capable of 48-knots, but range is only going to be ~450-nm. Plus the Freedom has two additional assets that Pegasus doesn’t have, it’s helicopters…

  • Secundius

    I question why the Hughes Glomar Explorer is in the article. The Navy didn’t acquire her until September 1976. The Soviet-Era K129 was raised in June 1974 by a Privately owned vessel of the Global Marine Developmental, Inc. a Howard Hughes Company, leased by the CIA…

    • old guy

      But the $$$$$ came from the Guvmint.

  • Secundius

    I don’t see the World’s First Aircraft Carrier of 1861, the USS. George Washington Parke Custis…

  • Chris Duffy

    I would add USS Wilmette, for over 30 years, from World War I to World War II, a training vessel for fresh cadets at Great Lakes in Illinois. During her career as a Navy ship, she trained thousands of sailors, sank a German U-boat in Lake Michigan (it had been towed there for gunnery practice) and hosted President Franklin Roosevelt & his war ministers on a fishing trip in 1943 as they planned D-Day.

    But her life in the US Navy was her second career. Her earlier job was as a passenger vessel, and it was in that role as S.S. Eastland, packed with summer weekend tourists…. she lost stability and rolled on her side in the Chicago River on July 24th, 1915. 844 of her passengers drowned.

    A trusty Naval training ship for three decades was in fact one of history’s most notorious ghost ships.

    • old guy

      ….And now we have her descendant, DD1000.

      • Secundius

        @ old guy.

        DD-1000 is “tumblehome”, Gunboat USS. Wilmette is “straight bowed”…

        • old guy

          My definition of “TUMBLEHOME” is that the waterline beam is greater than the deck beam. Right?

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            If your referring to what I said, I just pointed out that “tumblehome” was nothing New and go back A least to he 18th century and most common one 18th and 19th century Sailing Vessels…

          • old guy

            Right, not to sound arrogant, but it would take too long to show the change in K (distance from center of flotation to center of gravity) for these ships and the DD 1000, and when it is OK and when, no good.

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            Your standard Sportsman’s Canoe is a Tumblehome design. Viking Ship’s were Tumblehome designs. Even Repulican and Imperial Roman Ore Galleys were Tumblehome designs…

  • Linh_My

    I remember seeing a number of Mike-6 LCMs converted to mini-aircraft carriers in Viet Nam. These strike me as the smallest aircraft carriers that the USN had in operating service. They carried the UH-1b

    • Secundius

      @ Linh_My.

      I think the vessels were called HA(L) – Helicopter Attack squadron (Light), converted LST-512 class Tank Landing Crafts.

  • Phil Gardocki

    Odd, that is a Bactrian (2 hump) camel, not a Dromedary (1 hump).

  • Phil Gardocki

    I found my answer in the cargo list of the USS Supply, 33 Camels of various breeds. They wanted a number of different breeds to see which was best suited for the American West, and had both Dromedaries and Bactrians, as well as some breeds I am not familiar with.

  • Secundius

    I think the Smallest Aircraft Carrier’s in the World, were the Vietnam War-era ATC(H) or Armored Troop Carrier (Helicopter) used by the Brown Water Navy. And measured only 56-feet long and 14-feet wide…

    • old guy

      Kaimolino was the best of the small helo-capable ships, and the most stable.

      • Secundius

        @ old guy.

        I believe the question was Smallest, not Stable. By the way USS. Sea Slice is up for sale, starting bidding price is $180,000.00 USD. Only 1.2% of it’s original cost of $15,000,000.00 USD. Interested…

        • old guy

          Yeah, but SS5+ is the test. My pilot could land his helo on a 5-log raft in a calm sea. As to Sea Slice, What a blast that would be.

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            I don’t know if they still use it, but when I was 6-years old. I remember going Indonesia to Singapore in a storm that rated ~10 on the Beaufort Scale, spent a day and half “puking” on that one…

          • old guy

            Man oh man. Most ships are happy to Survive in SS7 to 8.

  • Secundius

    @ Bhess.

    Current size of US. Active Fleet Strength 287-ships, Take of the LCS’s, number drops too ~268-ships. That Magical Figure of 250-ships, coming fast…

    • redgriffin

      That number is a fallacy built up by the Reagan Administration there is no evidence to say that the US Navy would need a specific number of ships to perform it’s mission.

  • Secundius

    On the Dynamite Cruiser, range of guns can be increased to 4-miles when using a 200-pound shell…

  • Rob C.

    Pretty neat to see the USS Wolverine in use, i’ve only seen pictures of the ship.
    Some of these unique ships are certainly interesting. Arguably the Echo could still be used to do it’s spy missions.

    • Secundius

      @ Rob C.

      I don’t know if it qualifies as a Army Spy Ship. But, HSV-2, Swift an Army operated High-Speed Vessel, capable of 45-knots. And has the “Nickname of the Vomit Comet”. Built by Incat of Tasmania, Australia. And acquired in 22 July 2009…

  • Secundius

    Glad to see you guy are on your toes, again with another Redditment…

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  • Ed L

    So the USS Echo was for real. 40,000 miles running in an out of enemy waters during WW2

  • Kenshi

    The PHM class still have value and should be an active category, adding additional capability was not impossible and should have been done instead of shortsightedly decommissioning simply as a weak component of a draw down. Hydrofoil multi role combat vessels such as a armed version of the corvette sized USS Plainview should also be a class.

    • Spawn_of_Santa

      Hydrofoil technology has been replaced by the more stable SWATH.

      • onebookisgood

        SWATH is garbage because it is not transferable to larger ships and it still has the problem of high sea state making them useless. It does not scale well. Hydrofoils get the hull on large ships, Uhem, large ships, out of high sea state and is more maneuverable as well. Hydrofoils DO NOT do well on small ships(Pegasaus class) because to be able to out of a high sea state, the legs would be taller/larger than the ship class itself.

        Oh yea, and we have essentially solved the bearing issues in salt water which plagued early hydrofoil designs.

        • Spawn_of_Santa

          SWATH is garbage because we can’t use it for everything. Really??? That’s basically what you said. Your comments about high sea state are the opposite of all the science I’ve read…i.e. a high sea state is still a high sea state, but SWATH handles it better than a single traditional hull.

          And uh… Yay Hydrofoils! Good for them. I would suggest a bigger problem with HF would be survivability in combat. The foils are a weak point. They suffer from a greatly increased draft (can also make beach operation extremely difficult), Obstructions can easily cause a ton of problems (grasses, floating logs, etc). Collisions with said objects at speed can be catastrophic – esp. at speed (You ever see what happens to a boat when it hits an object at high speed? I have – I had Uncles who raced boats, one drove his picklefork into a log at about 90mp – they salvaged the stern of the boat). Massively increased drag at lower speeds. Operation on foils at speed requires a ton of power, and necessitates that the weight of the vessel be kept to a minimum. The ride in rough seas is very rough, much more so than in a conventional vessel. This list actually goes on and explains why hydrofoils are a “neat” but impractical hull design.

          • onebookisgood

            SWATH…. doesn’t work in high sea states. It is better for smaller ships compared to HF in high sea states though. In regards to large ships it is bad as this requires massive moveable extendable foils to raise it even higher. That was originally the main drawbacks of HF on small ships.

            There is a vast difference between a speed bot with a tiny thin HF and a 10,000 ton ship with inch thick HF regarding debris in the water. Poor babies might have to put seatbelts on the bridge during wartime for the ability to save 50%of their fuel, extended range, better damage tolerance, and effective complete immunity to torpedos and mines as the ship at least will still be floating without holes instead of torn in half.

            Beaching is lead pipe simple… rotate them up and out of the water. They have to rotate/extend anyways for maneuverability and stability for load differential and for damage tolerance when a torpedo takes part of the foil system out.

            Your rough seas BS is just that, BS. That is for a small vessel which could not get hull born. A HF vessel does not even notice the waves.

            Operation of ANY vessel at speed requires a ton of power. No reason to go to those extreme speeds. HF power sweet spot is around 30knots. Anything over 45 and massive cavitation problems. As long as you can provide foil born for all sea states, or most for between 15 and 40 knots… win win win. Besides any rate past this and the propeller has massive problems with cavitation.

            HF would most certainly require a different ship layout for ease of multiple HF foils for damage tolerance and basic implementation. It would have to be shorter and stubbier than long and narrow. Weight is not an issue, except for small HF designs. The larger they become the easier it becomes. Just throw another HF in the water. Since water is not compressible, like air, you do not have to worry about HF interference in terms of lift, just angle of attack.

  • Shelly Ann LPN(ret)

    I was stationed at the 32nd Street Naval Station and at USNH Balboa from 1970 to about May 1972. While at 32nd Street, used to watch the USS Pegasus PGH-1 work out in the harbor. Always though they were an unique vessel. When I got the chance to visit 32nd Street, I would always drive along the base waterfront and look at the ships in port. At the time women were not allowed on ships as crew, always jumped at a chance to go aboard a ship to see what it would be like to live aboard one. The only ship that I did not get a chance to go aboard was the Pegasus. The last time I saw her she was on blocks and siting on one of the quay walls.