The U.S. Navy has always been an innovator. It pioneered the Global Positioning System, developed nuclear propulsion, and deployed the first operational laser weapon. The recently commissioned USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) is brimming with bleeding-edge technology. Its stealth design, Integrated Power System, and long-range gun firing capabilities make it the most sophisticated ship in the world. Likewise, the lead ship in the new carrier class USS Gerald R Ford (CVN-78) features many technological advances including an electromagnetic aircraft launch system. However, the Department of the Navy is not always in a rush to phase out and replace assets that continue to effectively perform their missions. The following is a list of some of the oldest Navy and Marine assets still in service.
Launched in 1797, the USS Constitution is not only the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, it is the oldest commissioned ship afloat in the world. Used today primarily for ceremonial and educational purposes, only 10–15 percent of the frigate actually dates to the original construction due to centuries of repairs and restorations. The Constitution is also the only ship in the current U.S. fleet to have sunk an enemy vessel, having defeated and burnt HMS Java in 1813. All other American ships that scored victories at sea have since been decommissioned, the last being the USS Simpson (FFG-56), which sank the Iranian missile patrol boat Josnan during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 and was decommissioned in 2015.
The second oldest ship is often overlooked. FS-344 was a 1945 Army Freight and Supply vessel used as a training ship and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. It was transferred to the Navy in 1966, converted into an intelligence gathering ship, and renamed the USS Pueblo (AGER-2). Two years later, the Pueblo and her crew were seized by North Korean forces who claimed the ship had entered its territorial waters, a claim vehemently denied by Navy officials. The Pueblo is currently on public display in Pyongyang as a trophy but is still an officially commissioned U.S. ship. She is one of the few ships the United States has lost since the end of WWII but there is still hope that is may be returned one day. There have been proposals to repatriate the ship including one that involved swapping her for a battle flag captured by U.S. Marines during the obscure Korean-American conflict in 1871. The U.S. government has remained steadfast in its position that the ship is illegally seized U.S. property and that there will be no negotiations that would lead to legitimizing North Korea’s actions.
Oldest Deployable Ship
The USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) was commissioned in 1970 and operates out of Yokosuka, Japan, as the command ship for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. As the oldest deployable U.S. ship she has the honor of flying the First Navy Jack depicting a snake with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” The jack had initially been resurrected in 1976 and flown by the fleet for one year to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial. In 1980, Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo decreed that the flag would be reserved for the longest serving active ship. (Another one of Hildago’s lasting Navy policies allows sailors to have beer if they are at sea for 45 continuous days.) In 2002, the Navy directed all ships to fly the First Navy Jack during the Global War on Terrorism. The Blue Ridge probably will retain the title of oldest active ship for a few more decades because budget concerns have forced the Navy to plan on stretching the use of her until 2039 and perhaps beyond.
Medal of Honor recipient Richard O’Kane is the most successful American submarine commander, having sunk 33 enemy ships totaling 116,454 tons as CO of the USS Tang (SS-306) during World War II. Like many submariners, O’Kane enjoyed playing card games to pass the time when deployed. While serving as executive officer of the USS Wahoo (SS-238) he was dealt a hand with the highest possible score during a game on cribbage with his commanding officer, Dudley “Mush” Morton. This rare hand was seen as a good omen which proved to be true when the sub sank two Japanese ships the next day. After the war, a commemorative cribbage board was presented to O’Kane at the commissioning of the second USS Tang (SS-563) in 1951. When the Tang was decommissioned a new tradition was established requiring that the cribbage board be transferred to the wardroom of the oldest boat in the fleet. O’Kane’s board is currently on board the USS Bremerton (SSN-698), which was commissioned in 1981.
Oldest Fixed-Wing Aircraft
The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, has a couple of U-6A Beavers (1948) and an NU-1B Otter (1953) that are regularly used to train pilots in low-speed aircraft handling. The Canadian antiques are the oldest active aircraft operated by the Navy. The oldest deploying fixed-wing aircraft belong to the C-130 family, the world’s longest running military aircraft production line. The aptly named Hercules began carrying large amounts of troops and cargo in 1956. The rugged plane not only is valued for its hinged ramp at the rear that allows for quick loading and unloading, it is surprisingly nimble and can operate on small runways. The C-130 is the largest aircraft ever to land and take off from a carrier – which it did without arresting gear or a catapult. In addition to flying the enhanced KC-130 variant to perform aerial refueling missions, the Marines operate the logistics and transport C-130 “Fat Albert” in support of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team.
Oldest Rotary-Wing Aircraft
Introduced in 1961, the SH-3 Sea King served as a versatile workhorse for Naval aviation until being retired in 2006. A decade later, Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) continues to fly the VH-3D variant that debuted in 1974. Incredibly, the primary mission of the oldest helicopter is to transport the President of the United States. With its distinct green and white paint scheme, the helicopter carrying POTUS is given the call sign “Marine One” while the Vice President catches a lift in “Marine Two.” To put the age of the Sea King in perspective, the year it was first deployed was the same year that the Oldsmobile F-85 DeLuxe Station Wagon rolled off the assembly line. Even though the President is being flown in an aircraft based on a 56-year-old design, it is difficult to imagine him being driven in a 56-year-old car. The VH-92 will soon finally replace the venerable Sea King.
The VFA-14 Tophatters’ origins date to 1919 with the creation of the Pacific Fleet Air Detachment, which consisted of seaplanes, ship-launched fighters, and kite balloons. The squadron’s designation, aircraft, and missions have changed many times over the years, but it has always retained the “High Hat” insignia chosen to convey that its pilots are the elite of the aviation community. The Tophatters and their distinct emblem appear in the classic 1931 Clark Gable film Hell Divers, which was censored upon its original release to prevent exposure of the tailhook and arresting gear system during carrier scenes. VFA-14 currently flies F/A-18Es Super Hornets and sports the motto “The Oldest and the Boldest.”
Oldest Small Arms
During the Philippine Insurrection of 1899–1913, U.S. forces noted that their standard .38 caliber revolvers often were ineffective against frenzied Moro guerillas who charged without fear and were rumored to be fueled by narcotics. U.S. officers repeatedly reported that Moro fighters were still able to advance and engage in hand-to-hand combat even after being shot by several .38 bullets. A pistol with greater man-stopping power was needed. John Browning developed a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol that was adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1911 and the Marine Corps in 1913. The sleek pistol proved to be so reliable and effective that a variant is being used by Marine Expeditionary Units more than a century later.
The 1938 semiautomatic M1 Garand served U.S. forces as the standard rifle during World War II and the Korean War. The reliability and effectiveness of the weapon has been credited with providing additional confidence to anyone who fought with it. Lieutenant General George S. Patton believed that “the M1 Rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.” As much praise as the M1 received, there was room for improvement. The selective fire automatic M14 with a larger clip began to replace the M1 in 1959 and was the Marines’ standard rifle by 1965; it in turn was replaced by the M16 years later. Although the M1 still is used only by the U.S Marine Corps Silent Drill Team, the M14 continues to have a limited but varied role. The Navy uses the M14 as part of ship security as well as to fire shot line in preparation for refueling and replenishment operations. The M14 is also the rifle commonly carried by honor guards. The MK 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle is a variant fielded by the SEALs.
Oldest Machine Gun
The Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun was developed at the end of World War I to give U.S. forces a large-round, long-range, high-velocity punch. The initial 1921 version was improved in 1933 and designated the M2, affectionately known by military personnel as “Ma Deuce.” Devastating against both man and machine, the M2 has been prized for its adaptability and accuracy while being deployed in all major U.S. military actions from World War II through the current Global War on Terror. It has been used for infantry support, mounted on armored vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and even modified to serve as a sniper rifle. So durable is the M2 that modified versions from the original 1921 production run have been found in working order in the arsenal. The M2 remains a favorite weapon among Marines and is a common sight on Navy ships.
Oldest Land Vehicle
Because horses have not changed in millions of years, one could argue that the U.S. Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard maintains the oldest land vehicles. Of course, there are those who would dispute classifying a horse as a vehicle. As far as machines, the Marines still use modified Caterpillar D9 bulldozers that were introduced in 1955. The oldest land vehicle built exclusively for military use is the big, powerful M88 Recovery Vehicle. Entering service in 1961, the heavily armored M88 was designed to repair or pull damaged fighting vehicles while under fire. Fittingly, the main armament of the oldest vehicle is the classic M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun.
Oldest Shore Establishment
A year after the Department of the Navy was created by an Act of Congress in 1798, the Washington Navy Yard was established along what is now known as the Anacostia River. The impressive front gate that can be seen today was designed by the neoclassical architect Benjamin Latrobe, who also oversaw the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building. The Yard barely survived its early years when it was intentionally burned by Commodore Thomas Tingey to prevent it from being captured by advancing British forces during the War of 1812. At its peak, the Yard was the largest naval ordnance facility in the world. Other early naval yards in Philadelphia, Boston, and Brooklyn have long since closed, but the Washington Navy Yard remains and is now primarily used as an administrative center and the residence of the Chief of Naval Operations. A short march away are the historic Marines Barracks (1801) as well as the Home of the Commandants (1806), which is one of the oldest continuously occupied public buildings in the District of Columbia.
Oldest Overseas Establishment
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, U.S. Marines landed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and overran enemy forces. Unlike other captured Spanish possessions such as the Philippines and Puerto Rico, Cuba was granted its independence by the United States – but not before the U.S. government secured a more than favorable deal to lease “Gitmo” in perpetuity as a strategic American coaling and naval station. To this day, the United States still pays the annual lease with a check for $4,085 that the Cuban government under the Castro regime has refused to cash. Starting in 2002, a portion of the base has served as a detention camp for terrorism suspects.
Since the establishment of the U.S. Navy in 1775, duties at sea have evolved with advances in technology. Many ratings have become obsolete while new occupations have been established. Powder Monkeys, Coal Heavers, Airship Riggers, and Pigeon Trainers have given way to Missile Technicians, Special Warfare Operators, Mass Communication Specialists and Air Traffic Controllers. A few ratings have stood the test to time. Boatswain’s Mates, Gunner’s Mates, and Quartermasters were at the first muster two and half centuries ago and can still be found as members of ships’ crews today.
Longest Serving Personnel
Many Navy communities like to recognize their longest serving members with a special designation.
Longest Serving Active Duty Surface Warfare Officer – “Old Salt” ADM Kurt Tidd
Longest Serving Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist – “Old Tar” Senior Chief Gunner's Mate (SW/EXW) Robert Hyatt
Longest Serving Aviator – “Gray Eagle” ADM Scott Swift
Longest Serving Naval Flight Officer – “Gray Owl” ADM Harry Harris
Longest Serving U.S. Coast Guard Aviator – “Ancient Albatross” VADM Charles W. Ray.
Longest Serving SEAL – “Bull Frog” CDR Steven Elias
Longest Serving Enlisted Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician – “Master Blaster” Command Master Chief Robert McCue