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Opinion: USS Samuel B Roberts Should Take Barry’s Place at the Washington Navy Yard

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) arrives at Naval Station Mayport after completing a six-month deployment in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility. US Navy Photo

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) arrives at Naval Station Mayport after completing a six-month deployment in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy has a brief window of opportunity to ensure that a warship continues to grace Washington’s waterfront for another generation.
For more than three decades, the destroyer USS Barry has sat pierside at the Washington Navy Yard, berthed in the Anacostia River across the street from the Navy’s main museum.

Uncounted busloads of Washington students, not to mention visitors of every other stripe, have tramped across her steel decks and peered at gun turrets that laid down covering fire for Marines going ashore in Vietnam. In recent years, the opening of Nationals Park and the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail have brought the old warship to a new peak of visibility and accessibility.

But Barry’s days are numbered, and not just because the hull will eventually need repairs too expensive to perform in situ. The planned replacement to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which carries South Capitol Street across the river, will have no swing span to permit the passage of tall ships. The Navy must therefore tow the destroyer away before the new bridge is erected next year.

If the city is not to be left bereft of a warship, a replacement must be found equally quickly.
Why bother? Well, the benefits start at neighborhood scale and go up from there.

Certainly, there are more and more reasons to visit the burgeoning district around the Navy Yard, but a warship is a powerful, and unusual, attraction. Moreover, its particular location on D.C.’s “forgotten river” makes it a perfect anchor for the new walkway that starts at the ballpark.
“Ships are kid magnets,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain who stepped down last year as the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Among Hendrix’s duties was attracting visitors to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, which sits across from Barry. In August 2013, he tried an experiment: he requisitioned Navy reservists to help extend the ship’s visiting hours to match the museum’s. Attendance doubled, he says.
Such efforts are important to the Navy. Enticing visitors onto a warship boosts the public’s awareness of the service, and in particular, helps with recruiting. The service operates only two other comparable ships, both in New England, and this is not the time to abandon such efforts. Naval matters have been somewhat less in the public eye during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the fleet remains a pillar of national security and a key guarantor of world trade. It is well that America’s political leaders and residents of the nation’s capital have a haze-gray hull in view to remind them.

So what are the options? Some argue that the Navy should exercise the clause in the contract that would let it reclaim the cruiser Olympia from a riverfront museum in Philadelphia. Built in 1895, Olympia served as Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay. Today the ship is deteriorating, and the museum has been unable to find the money for repairs.
But a warship of more recent vintage and in far better shape is about to become available: the USS Samuel B. Roberts, which will be decommissioned in May after 29 years of distinguished service.

 The Pride of Baltimore II hosts visitors while at anchor next to Washington Navy Yard's display ship Barry on Washington D.C.'s Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. US Navy Photo

The Pride of Baltimore II hosts visitors while at anchor next to Washington Navy Yard’s display ship Barry on Washington D.C.’s Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. US Navy Photo

Just a bit larger than the destroyer it would replace, the Roberts is a guided missile frigate of the Oliver Hazard Perry class. The Perrys, tough and relatively inexpensive, comprise one of the most numerous ship classes built since World War II. None is currently slated for preservation.
Its name alone makes the “Sammy B” a worthy candidate. In 1942, Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts gave his life to rescue Marines from a Guadalcanal beach; later that year, the Navy named a destroyer escort after him. That ship, DE-413, helped preserve the U.S. victory at Leyte Gulf by fighting off Japanese battleships in a David-and-Goliath melee that the Navy’s official historian called “the most remarkable of the Pacific War.” A second Roberts, DD-823, turned back Soviet ships bearing missile parts to Cuba and later saw combat off Vietnam.

The current Roberts earned its own place in naval lore as an enduring symbol of the Navy’s “don’t give up the ship” ethos. In 1988, while escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf, the frigate struck an Iranian mine that blew a truck-sized hole in the hull. The crew, well-led and drilled to superb readiness, fought fire and flood into the night. Today, the story of the Roberts is taught throughout the Navy as a case study in how to prepare a ship for combat.

Now the ship is being prepared for retirement, and is eventually to be scrapped. The Navy, the D.C. government, and indeed the public should endeavor to save the Roberts once more time, and to ensure that a new generation can visit a warship on the Anacostia waterfront.

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  • Mr. Speaker

    If they put an FFG in there they should at least put the missile launcher back on. Doesn’t have to be the whole thing, just the topside assembly. They look so naked without them.

    • Curtis Conway

      Amen. Mk 13 here we come!

      • Good luck. Every Mk 13 in US Navy inventory was transferred to foreign navies.

        • Curtis Conway

          Even the broken ones are overseas?

    • Patrick Bechet

      Thank you, I was about to say the same thing. That 25mm mount is disrespectful to this wonderful class of ships.

  • Jo

    Why not the USS Olympia? She needs a new home and funds raised. Bringing her to the Navy Yard could do the trick.

    • Rob C.

      She needs to be taken out of the water, she in too bad of shape to remain anywhere. Also, she need shipyard work. Ironicly the Navy Yard not a facility to do it.

      Sad thing is, the Barry will likely be scrapped. I served on a Perry, frankly the Barry more interesting to look at than a Perry is. Missile launcher isn’t as much to look at as pair of big guns any day of the week. Sammy B should be saved, but Barry will be losted a well. Tough decisions.

      • Paul McWilliams

        I agree, even with the launcher replaced, and FFG is just not as impressive as a real gun-armed DD.

    • disqus_89uuCprLIv

      If she could stay afloat for the passage.

  • Curtis Conway

    I whole heatedly support the Sammy “B” coming to the Navy yard. It will remind the ‘Powers that be’ that Sea Mines are real and deadly, and US Navy Regulations exist for a reason!

    • PolicyWonk

      Indeed. The OHP’s were real warships, unlike the sad pretenders they’re building and claiming are replacements…

  • Ctrot

    If being blocked in by the new bridge is a problem for Barry, why isn’t the same a problem for Sammy B or Olympia?

    • Jeff Rice


    • Popeye

      I think that is why this op-ed mentioned that there is a “brief window of opportunity.” The Samuel B. Roberts would have to be brought in after the Barry leaves but before the new bridge permanently closes access to the Anacostia River for vessels of that size. Construction begins in October on the new bridge.

      • Ctrot

        But then Roberts is STUCK there, no way out. What do they do when she inevitably needs repair?

        • Popeye

          Well, the Barry’s has been there for 30 years, hasn’t she? Even though she could have been moved (because the current bridge is a swing bridge) I don’t think she has been (but I might be wrong on this). Maybe they just figure it’s a problem they’ll deal with in 30 years.

  • sragsd0416

    I agree that this needs to happen. However what really needs to be done is the building of a USN Museum similar to concept to what the USMC Museum in Quantico is like. The USMC Museum is an immersive experience which includes temperature and humidity changes as well as featuring actual Marines in the various life size exhibits. The USN Museum should be placed on the water and include tourable ship “s”. There are lots of issues with the Navy Yard, limited access, terrible parking terrible traffic, limited space, and underwhelming. Our country has a rich naval heritage and while there are a number of hero ships to tour around our country there is nothing that represent it – especially in a manner similar to that of the USMC Experience.

  • Terry Miller

    I agree, Brad, that the Roberts is the best candidate to replace the Barry. I also agree that there should be a “display ship” or museum ship at WNY but I hope that the access is redesigned to make it easier to visit than it has been.

  • Andy McIntosh

    Seems pretty dumb to have an “Navy Yard” that doesn’t have a Navy ship. Just sayin…..

    • Brett M

      And it’s pretty dumb to have a navy yard that’s inaccessible to ships because the new bridge won’t swing open.

  • Rob C.

    That such stupid thing, that a bridge replacement is forcing nation’s Navy to decide what do about a important artifact to promote the Navy. Tight budgets I guess.

    Either case they should move Barry on the other side of the bridge if it’s that kind problem. If the Navy really wants a ship there, they either should fund actual swing bridge or accept they can’t have ship at the Yard and build Navy Yard Annex outside of the new bridge area so Barry or any other vessel they choose can be displayed.

  • W Horn

    There is no reason more than one ship cannot be preserved at the WNY. The answer for USS Olympia and/or Barry would be to encase the ship in the quay like IJN Mikasa in Yokosuka. That would take it out of the water and eliminate the problems of hull corrosion and need for periodic drydocking. thus reducing costs. If the Congress won’t fund such a museum ship or ships, let’s get moving to raise the funds through contributions.

  • Beomoose

    I would support this idea, but I also have one of my own: Tow a floating drydock to the naval yard, dredge out beneath the BARRY, put BARRY in the dock, and do the repairs right there. Invite the public to come watch the process. Once its done the drydock can be partially dismantled to pass under the bridge.

  • Jim A.

    I would love it if this idea came to fruition. I served on two FFG’s and I’d love to be able to visit one and show my kids where I lived/worked back in the ’80’s. FFG’s could be a royal pain to maintain, but I believe they made for crews that were very tight. I just attended a reunion for one of my ships (first one in 25 years) and it was awesome. Within 10 minutes of my arrival I felt like I was sitting in the lounge in the berthing area and it was 1987 all over again. I’d give anything to be able to walk around an FFG just one more time.

  • Paul McWilliams

    Sad. An FFG, while beautiful, just does not have the same formidable appearance of a real gun-armed destroyer!

    • The 76mm main gun of the Perry class is a World-class naval gun. While not a 5 inch gun, it is an accurate dual-purpose gun, and it does have a much more rapid rate of fire that every 5 incher in operation today.

      • Paul McWilliams

        OK, and a 25mm chain gun has an even higher rate-of-fire, and a the Vulcan on the Phalanx CIWS even higher than that. But none of those looks nearly as cool as a MK42 5-inch mount, especially since the 76mm it is nestled mostly out of sight, on the after part of the deckhouse, obscured by the masts, and aimed at the the stack. Looks aren’t everything, but neither is rate-of-fire, and when the ships is serving as a display piece, looks are much more important. I think an FFG is a fine looking ship, but as a display-piece, a Forest Sherman has my vote every time.

        If they do use an FFG, then they’d better at least put the MK13 launcher back in place with a nice shiny blue standard missile on the rail.

  • Alan P. Tracy

    Although less physically impressive, the Roberts’ story is compelling. Its name represents heroes of both the past and near present. Its theatre of operation is still an active one. A Master Chief who earlier served on the Roberts was an instructor at the Navy instructor school I attended, he also taught Navy leadership there. He lead the damage control crew who wrapped a cable around the superstructure and got the ship back to port. While he did not engage in sea stories about the incident, his example set a strong tone of practical and moral leadership that the Navy was trying to re-inject in Leadership training that had been replaced by management theory in the previous decade.

  • RobM1981

    Great idea.

  • disqus_89uuCprLIv

    The simplest solution is to make the bridge openable. Spend some “stimulus” money intelligently and preserve the heritage of Washington ‘ s waterfront- not only the Navy yard.
    Where are the DC and Maryland Congressional reps now? No donors involved? How about funding a draw or swing bridge because it is the right action to take?

  • publius_maximus_III

    “The planned replacement to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which carries South Capitol Street across the river, will have no swing span to permit the passage of tall ships.”

    So why in the world would the Navy want to put a LARGER ship in her place? That would just about guarantee that whenever the time eventually arrives, either (1) the replacement ship would have to be scrapped in-situ, or (2) a span of the “new” Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge would have to be temporarily removed…

  • gunnerv1

    USS Cole?

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  • Patrick Burton

    Wholeheartedly, save the “Sammy B.”! Smaller ship, loads of history, three vessels bore the name, all of which struck major damage control situations. Prime examples of well trained crews and the results of such training.
    If a smaller vessel is required to fill the slip, I see no better opportunity than to let her in. Perfect timing with the upcoming bridge construction and her recent decommissioning.

  • Marjus Plaku

    We have several Ticos laid up here in Philly. What a sad sight to see. The best cruisers in the world mothballed before their prime and now sitting and slowly rusting.
    The battle EEEs still visible on the bridge. At least the Perry’s more or less got their use in before the plug was pulled.

  • Danger_Dan

    What a great idea, to honor a great ship. I hope it gains traction.

  • KC135TopBoom

    The Sammy B. is a name the USN should hold in very high honor. Save this great warship.

  • Blue387

    I like this idea but how tall is the Samuel B. Roberts in comparison to the Barry?

  • Mike Wieland

    This is a reasonable proposal. Anyone can support this idea by contacting their Congressional Representatives and asking them to con-sponsor legislation to direct the Navy to examine the feasibility and required funding to replace the USS Barry with USS Samuel B Roberts as the display ship for the Nation’s Capitol and all Americans visiting the Northern Virginia/DC area to see.

    • publius_maximus_III

      Done, emailed my Congressman and both my Senators.

  • George Schnyer

    The ship that should be there is in Philadelphia now. Yes, it should have been Barry had they taken the proper care of her as the USN expects care to be taken with all of the donated Historical ships. However, since that care was not given properly to Barry over the years, then the ship that belongs in Washington D.C. is USS Olympia (C-6) which is one ship that desparately needs a makeover and should be preserved properly NOW before it is too late for her as well.

  • gro

    I had heard that a decision had to be made that if a ship stayed at ‘the Yard’, it wouldn’t be able to get out as the South Capital Street Bridge was going to be widened or rebuilt to fit in with the Ball Park and they weren’t planning on a draw bridge.
    It sure will look funny going through that part of town and not seeing ‘ole 933’, looking good, like a tin can should.

    Mentioned on another string that I first read the headline

    Barry dragged out of DC in change and immediately thought White House, not Navy Yard.
    Oh well, can’t win them all…..

  • publius_maximus_III

    Replacing a DD with an FFG seems like a step down to me, but at least it would be a closer representative of today’s Navy (having guided missiles).

    But instead of just a one-for-one replacement, how about using the opportunity to up the ante? Get some welders to slice away exactly one half of the superstructure, then attach sheets of Plexiglas or tempered glass with rubber gaskets all the way across that new cross-section. The remaining hull would, of course, require additional ballast on that side to counter the non-symmetry. The scrap metal removed could help pay for the alterations.

    Not only would students and other visitors be able to take a tour through the remaining half of the ship’s superstructure and of the entire spaces below deck, but from the opposite dockside perspective, they could see in one glance the complex relationships between various parts of the warship’s interior.

    Who can say how many youngsters left after a visit to this floating piece of history with dreams of one day becoming part of the USN? Would be worth whatever the Navy is paying for recruiting posters, for sure. Let’s get-er-done quickly, before that swing bridge is replaced with a fixed span.

  • A million times yes, we already lost all the Spruance Class (Paul F. Foster could theoretically still be saved but extremely unlikely due to extensive modifications she’s received for her role as SDTS) we need to save at least one of the Oliver Hazard Perry class ships.

  • TFolsom

    I understand the decisions that were made. Is there a possibility that another location can be found, perhaps near the Gangplank MArina / FT McNair where several display ships (there have been several worthy suggestions made, esp. the Olympia ) could be placed in permanent dry dock (as HMS Victory & USS Alabama have been preserved and many more need to be) and linked to both the Navy Museum and and National Mall area (a river walk extension and perhaps a horse drawn tour or bus shuttle)?