USS Constellation (CV-64) was the third US Navy ship to bear the name, and was one of the fastest ships in the fleet. During the final stages of her construction, she was heavily damaged by a fire. A forklift operator accidentally collided with a steel place which broke off the plug of a 500-gallon diesel tank. The fuel was probably ignited by a welder when it flowed belowdecks.
Seventeen hours were required to extinguish the blaze and the damages reached $75 million. The commissioning date was delayed until 27 October 1961; seven months late.
Constellation was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in summer 1962 and nearly two years later was deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin of Vietnam, relieving Kitty Hawk (cva63). For two months she flew armed photo reconnaissance over Laos. Following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August 1964 Constellation launched F-4B Phantom IIs to provide cover for destroyers which the Johnson administration alleged were attached by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. After serving in Vietnam for nine months, Constellation steamed back to San Diego for her first shipyard period. That lasted for eight months.
A full-blown war cruise followed the yard period in 1966. During 111 days on station Constellation’s aircraft bombarded roads, bridges, and other targets in an attempt to impede the movement of men and materiel southward. Following this seven-month period, she steamed back to San Diego, having lost 16 aircrewmen and 15 aircraft. The ship was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
Constellation was the focus of media attention when black members of her crew protested what they saw as disparate treatment by the Navy, leading to what some saw as an abortive mutiny in late 1972. Constellation returned to the United States on 1 July and prepared to return to the western Pacific in early 1973. Replacement personnel reported aboard while Constellation was in the United States until the ship had 250 more men than the ship’s berthing could accommodate. Constellation’s commanding officer ordered administrative (less than honorable) discharges for five black sailors he considered troublemakers. He planned to give early discharges to another 250 men whose enlistments would expire while Constellation was overseas.
While Constellation was conducting exercises off the California coast, a rumor started that the captain was going to give 250 less than honorable discharges to black sailors. On 1 November, black sailors waylaid a white mess cook in a passageway and broke his jaw. The captain scheduled an open meeting for 2100 3 November to clarify the 250 planned discharges. At noon 3 November a group of 50 black sailors began a sit-in on a portion of the mess deck. On the night of 3–4 November 60 black sailors took control of the scheduled meeting, refused to leave the mess deck, and threatened to “tear up the ship.” Constellation returned to San Diego on 4 November to offload 130 men, including 12 white sailors, before returning to sea. Constellation returned to San Diego on 7 November and the offloaded sailors were transported back to the dock on 9 November, but only 8 boarded their ship. The remaining sailors sat down on the dock to be filmed by television crews and were ultimately transferred to shore stations for mast.
Twelve received general discharges, 35 were honorably discharged but not recommended for re-enlistment, and 73 received punishments ranging from loss of pay and reduction in rate to warnings prior to being reassigned to sea duty. In January 1973, Constellation headed back to Southeast Asia. The Paris Peace Accords took effect on 28 January, but CVW-9 aircraft continued to strike targets in Laos until a cease-fire in that country was called on 21 February. Thus Connie, which had been on station at the beginning of combat operations in Vietnam in 1964, was on station at the end, nine years later. The remainder of the nine-month deployment consisted largely of flights in support of mine-clearing operations in North Vietnam.
The remainder of the 1970s through 1980s saw Constellation cruising to the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Yemen, and Arabian Sea in support of various actions. Then on 2nd August 1988 she left for a routine two-week qualification cruise off the coast of southern California.
Barely out of the harbor JP-5 fuel leaked into the machinery room and quickly erupted into an inferno that ripped through the uptakes and spread throughout the ship. The ship was rocked by explosions. By 2100 the main fires were out and the exhausted crew broke for a meal. The fires reflashed and everyone was back into fire-fighting mode. The entire ship was threatened until the next day. Constellation limped back into North Island next day.
The 1990s saw overhauls and reconstruction with exercises from South America to Korea to the Persian Gulf.
In November 2002 Connie prepared for her final deployment and the opportunity to fight in the global war on terrorism. On 19 March 2003, with two carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and three in the Persian Gulf, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced. Constellation was the night carrier and remained on station throughout the major ground combat phase. There were no fatalities and only one aircraft was lost. She left the Middle East, steaming to San Diego for the last time on 17th April 2003.
Following forty-one years of commissioned service, USS Constellation was decommissioned on 7th August 2003. She was towed to the ghost fleet at Bremerton, Washington and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 2nd December. She was marked to be towed and completely dismantled on 26 January 2012.
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