This paper discuses life on USS Knox-class frigates in the 1970s. It is a follow on to a previous article entitled “Post World War II Destroyer Escorts.” Much of the information was obtained by my personal experiences aboard ships of the class which include:
- Commissioning Executive Officer USS Blakely (DE 1072)
- Officer in Charge, Fleet Introduction Team, Avondale, Westwego, Louisiana
- Commissioning Commanding Officer, USS Moinester (DE 1097) – The last ship of the class
- Numerous inspections of ships of the class as a member of the LANTFLT Propulsion Examining Board and Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV)
Captain Charles T. Creekman, Executive Director of the Naval Historical Foundation, served under me as weapons officer on the commissioning crew of the USS Moinester and later had command of the Knox-class frigate USS W.S. SIMS (FF 1059).These were the last of the US Navy ships designated as Destroyer Escorts (DE). All ships of the class were designated as Frigates (FF) in 1975. The 46 ships of the Knox-class were the largest, last, and most numerous of the US Navy’s post war ASW escorts. Originally they were intended to be a follow on to the Garcia (DE 1040) and Brooke (DEG 1)-class ships. However because of the problems described in the previous article with the pressure fired boilers on those ships, it was found necessary to go back to conventional 1200 psi D type boilers on the Knox-class ships. This required an increase of approximately 24 feet in ship length. This proved to be a good decision. The ships were the last US Navy surface combatants built with conventional steam power plants.
A list of the major ship characteristics follows:
- Length – 438 ft.
- Beam – 46 ft. 9 in
- Draft – 24 ft. 9 in
- Full Load Displacement – 4260 tons
- Propulsion – Steam turbine – Single Screw – 35,000 SHP
- Boilers – two 1200 psi D type
- Sustained Speed – 27 knots
- Complement – 17 officers, 240 enlisted
- The ships were fitted with fin stabilizers.
- Radar – AN/SPS 10 Surface Search, AN/SPS 40 Air Search
- Sonar – AN/SQS 26 Bow Mounted, AN/ SQS 35 Variable Depth Sonar (VDS), augmented with AN/ SQR 18 Tactical Towed Array System on the 35 ships of the class that had VDS installed.
- Aircraft – One SH-2 Seasprite Mk1 LAMPS (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) helicopter
- One MK 42 5”/54 caliber gun mount
- Anti-submarine rockets (ASROC) & Harpoon anti-ship missiles fired from an 8 cell ASROC launcher located on the forecastle aft of the gun mount
- Mk 46 torpedoes in two dual tube launchers located amidships
- Sea Sparrow Basic Point Defense Missile System (BPDMS) on the fantail of 31 ships of the class, later replaced by Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS). installed aboard all 46 ships of the class.
The VDS and TACTAS were located in a compartment in the stern of the vessel. Their streaming access through stern doors and the CIWS, flight deck, and helicopter hangar can be clearly seen in the following photo:The design of the engineering plants followed conventional naval practices. No attempt was made to significantly increase the level of automation above that found aboard previous US Navy 1200 psi ships. As a result no major engineering problems comparable to those experienced aboard the Garcia & Brooke-class ships were experienced on the Knox-class ships.
The electrical plant consisted of three 750 kW steam driven turbo-generators located side by side in Auxiliary Room #1. There was also a 750 kW diesel generator located in the after part of the ship which could be used as either a ship service or emergency generator. It was driven by a pair of diesel engines in tandem, one forward and one aft of the generator.
All major machinery plant control functions were performed from air conditioned control rooms. One of these that was located adjacent to the Auxiliary Room was called “Electrical Central”. The main switchboards were located in this space. There were also air conditioned control rooms located on the upper levels of the fire room and engine room.
The ships were fitted with Prairie Masker noise reduction systems in order to minimize the noise transmitted from their machinery to the water and thereby reduce their detectability by submarines. The system consisted of a compressor that delivered high volumes of low pressure air at approximately 25 psi to four vertical belts along the underwater hull where it was discharged to the water through perforations in order to dampen out transmitted noise. The air was also supplied to perforations in the propeller trailing edges by way of a passage in the shafting for the same purpose. These systems proved to be very effective in service.
The keel for the lead ship of the class, USS Knox (DE 1052), was laid in October 1965 and the ship was commissioned on 12 April 1969. The first 25 ships of the class (DE 1052-1077) were built in four different shipyards. However the remaining 21 ships (DE 1078- 1097) were all built in a production line at Avondale Shipyard, near New Orleans, LA in order to save costs. The last ship of the class, USS Moinester (DE 1097) was commissioned in 1974. All of the ships had been decommissioned by 1994. However 31 ships of the class were sold or leased to foreign navies where some are still in service.
At Avondale the ships were built side by side in a production line which consisted of five building ways. The keel was laid on the inboard side of the line and the hulls were gradually moved sideways through the various positions culminating in a side launch into the Mississippi River as shown in the following photo:At the time that the ships were designed they were subject to criticism because of their single screw, insufficient speed to keep up with the carrier battle groups, and their lack of armament with only a single 5” gun, They were frequently referred to as “McNamara’s Folly”. However for a variety of reasons they actually became effective ASW platforms once in service.
Next I will discuss my own personal experiences with the Knox class frigates. As previously discussed, they included three back to back tours between 1970 and 1976 as well as a number of ship inspections.
In early 1970 I received orders to be the commissioning executive officer of the USS Blakely (DE 1072), a Knox-class DE that was under construction at Avondale. The ship was scheduled to be home ported in Charleston, South Carolina. It would be delivered to the navy in June 1970 and commissioned in July. At that time we had been stationed in California for the previous 5 years. My family and I drove across country to our destination which was actually in Newport, Rhode Island. I proceeded to report in to the Fleet Training Center in Newport for duty on the pre commissioning crew in April 1970. The prospective commanding officer, chief engineer, weapons, and supply officer along with about 20 senior crew members would form what was referred to as the “nucleus crew” at the shipyard where they would oversee the last stages of construction and become familiar with their ship. My job was to assemble and organize what was called the “balance crew” consisting of about 200 personnel in Newport. I was assisted by the prospective operations officer. I had never met my new CO, but it was important that we establish contact and keep him informed as to what was going on throughout the pre commissioning period which proved to be relatively uneventful and soon it was time to relocate to Charleston. So we packed up the car and headed south. Shortly after arrival we found a home for rent in a development west of the Ashley River. It took some time for us to get used to the high heat and humidity. But Charleston proved to be a very pleasant place to live.
In 1970 there was plenty of military presence in the town. This was primarily due to the fact that Representative Mendel Rivers was the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A large air force base was co-located with the commercial airport and new C-5A cargo transports could often be seen overhead. The Charleston Naval Base was located just up river from the city on the Cooper River. Just up river from the base was the Charleston Naval Shipyard and further up river in Goose Creek was a Naval Weapons Stations where Polaris Missiles were stored. The naval base was home to the Atlantic Fleet Mine Force, as well as a number of destroyers, frigates, and submarines. My last previous visit to Charleston had been in 1959 when I attended minesweeping school.
I found temporary office space in the Naval Shipyard immediately adjacent to the old building ways where my old Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) school ship, the USS Charleston was built in 1935. It turned out that there was a large model of the Charleston right outside the shipyard commander’s office. It has since been relocated to MMA where it remains on display.
Blakely was due to arrive at the shipyard on 2 July. Since the ship would not be turned over to the Navy until after arrival, it was operated by the builder’s trial crew on the delivery trip. Their practice was to make the transit from the Gulf of Mexico at a speed of over 25 knots. An unfortunate incident occurred during the trip when the ship ran down a sailboat off the Coast of Florida. Fortunately there were no fatalities. However the boat was a total loss. When Blakely hove in sight coming up the river, the jack staff was bent over in a U shape and there were scars remaining on the bow. But nevertheless it was an inspiring sight and my crew was very excited about going aboard and taking charge of a brand new ship. After the ship docked, I went up the gangway. My new CO Commander Frank Carelli was waiting on the quarterdeck.
The commissioning ceremony was held on18 July 1970. The sponsor who had christened the ship was the granddaughter of Vice Admiral Charles Blakely for whom the ship was named . The principal speaker was Rear Admiral James Holloway, who in 1974 would become the Chief of Naval Operations. Upon completion of the commissioning ceremony we entered the Charleston Naval Shipyard for an 8 week Fitting Out Availability (FOA).
A photo of Blakely while underway follows:Upon completion of the FOA we were towed down to the Naval Station piers to join the fleet. From there it was off for our first sea trial. As executive officer, I doubled as navigator. I was also the Officer of the Deck at General Quarters. I was very happy to have these additional duties because I had not really driven a ship since my tour as executive officer on a minesweeper in 1960 and I need to get back into it. There are lots of twists and turns in the Cooper River. But our CO was familiar with the channel because of his experience in command of a minesweeper based in Charleston and we had no difficulty as the channel was well marked. After a couple of sea trials, we headed south for our first assignment which was shakedown training. We would be gone from home for about six weeks. .Our first stop was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. where we were wined and dined by the local chapter of the Navy League. From there we headed to the Tongue of the Ocean, off Andros Island in the Bahamas for weapons system accuracy tests (WSAT). This was the first time we got to fire the ship’s weapons. The next stop would be Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) for shakedown training. Unlike many naval officers, I thoroughly enjoyed going to GTMO. It was a great place to learn how to operate the ship without the prying eyes of admirals or commodores. We performed every type of exercise you could think of including chasing submarines, gunnery shoots, engineering drills, towing exercises, fueling at sea, etc. We came into port and tied up to a pier each night. Both the CO & I were a bit leery about handling the ship around a pier at the beginning. Neither one of us had any real experience handling a single screw ship and Blakely had a large bow mounted sonar dome that could be easily damaged by striking the dock. In our home port of Charleston we had to use tugs because of strong cross currents in the Cooper River. But under the conditions that exist in GTMO, we found that we could do very nicely with only minor assistance required from a pusher boat. This experience was to stand me in good stead in later years.
Shakedown training for a ship of this type was normally four weeks long. You were allowed one port visit on a weekend mid way through the training cycle. We chose Port au Prince, Haiti. I had been there once before in 1955 during an MMA training cruise. Haiti has some wonderful scenery and, if properly developed, it could have become a major tourist destination. But it has always been hindered by bad government and abysmal poverty. The training period ended without incident. We though that we would be going to Vieques Island near Puerto Rico for live shore bombardment qualifications next. But, much to our chagrin, we had failed to file the necessary messages, so we had to head back to Charleston. Enroute we passed close to San Salvador Island, where Columbus first set foot in the New World.
The next hurdle was to go through Final Contract Trial (FCT) with the Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV Board). From there we were scheduled to enter the Charleston Naval Shipyard for a three month Post Shakedown Availability (PSA). Then came the bad news. The PSA would be at least six months in length for two reasons. 1. Installation of a new Basic Point Defense Missile System (BPDMS), 2. Over 100 high pressure steam system welds had to be redone. This was to cause us a lot of frustration. None of us wanted to spend the bulk of our tour in the shipyard. But we had no choice. While we were in the shipyard we underwent a conversion from Navy Special Fuel Oil (NSFO) marine distillate fuel (DFM). At the time, this conversion was happening throughout the fleet.
I was selected for the grade of Commander. That was a big relief. We felt like we were home free at that point. But a lot more was to happen during the remainder of my naval career.
We were due to go to sea to work out the bugs in our new BPDMS system. We also intended to complete our naval gunfire support qualification, this time at Culebra which was part of the Vieques Naval Gun Fire Support (NGFS) complex.
I was due for rotation in September 1971. Prior to going out to sea, I contacted my detailer. He informed me that my new assignment would be as Officer in Charge of something called a Fleet Introduction Team (FIT) at the Avondale Shipyard. Prior to going out to sea, He informed me that my new assignment would be as Officer in Charge of something called a Fleet Introduction Team (FIT) at the Avondale Shipyard where Blakely had been built. The FIT team’s purpose would be to guide the nucleus crews of the Knox-class frigates that were under construction at the shipyard through the pre-commissioning process. He gave me a contact at OPNAV in Washington that he indicated could provide me with more information on the assignment. That individual said that he would mail me a copy of my new charter. In the process, he informed me that when they had set up the working group that established the FIT team, they had specified that the Officer in Charge would get command of the last ship in the program. That sounded interesting to me.
Blakely was scheduled to go on a Northern European Cruise in September 1971. But I would miss out on that. On our return to Charleston after our stint at Culebra, my relief was waiting for us on the pier. Blakely would serve for another twenty years before being decommissioned in 1991 and scrapped in 2000.
Further adventures with the Knox-class frigates will be described in a subsequent article.
George W. Stewart is a retired US Navy Captain. He is a 1956 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. During his 30 year naval career, he held two ship commands and served a total of 8 years on naval material inspection boards, during which he conducted trials and inspections aboard over 200 naval vessels. Since his retirement from active naval service in 1986 he has been employed in the ship design industry where he has specialized in the development of concept designs of propulsion and powering systems, some of which have entered active service. He currently holds the title of Chief Marine Engineer at Marine Design Dynamics.