WWII warships as “floating White Houses”

In August 1945, the USA’s two atomic bombs hastened the end of WWII. Four years later the USSR tested its own atomic bomb. As the American military adjusted to the new reality, many new concepts came about. Some were tried, successful, and retained. Others were just tried.

NECPA (National Emergency Command Post Afloat) was a concept to use two WWII warships as a refuge for the President during times of great tension, either prior to a nuclear war with the USSR or as one was already starting.

nhlate(USS Northampton (CC-1), an unfinished WWII cruiser, was one of the NECPA ships.)

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(USS Wright (CC-2), formerly a WWII aircraft carrier, was the other NECPA ship.)

USS Northampton

the Oregon City class

The Oregon City class heavy cruisers, of which ten were ordered in 1944, was an adaptation of the Baltimore class. The main change was the superstructure and funnel (smokestack) arrangement to give anti-aircraft guns wider firing arcs, as by this late in WWII the main threat to US Navy cruisers was Japanese aircraft.

The Oregon City class measured 674’11” x 70’10” x 26’6″ and displaced 13,260t. The main armament was nine Mk15 8″ guns in three turrets. The AA weapons were six Mk32 twin 5″ turrets, forty-eight 40mm guns, plus two dozen 20mm guns. This class was designed for the SK-2 long-range air search radar. Two seaplane catapults were mounted.

These heavy cruisers had a 6″ armor belt and 8″-thick turret faces. The deck armor was 2½”. The Oregon City class was powered by Babcock & Wilcox boilers with General Electric geared steam turbines, turning four propeller shafts for a speed of 33 kts. The intended WWII crew was 2,000 men.

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(The leadship USS Oregon City (CA-122) at the end of WWII. The cruiser was not yet in commission; note the Bethlehem Steel flag flying on the forward mast.)

The US Navy expected that WWII would end mid-1946. It was forecast that half this class would be in service then, with the balance needed in the postwar fleet to compensate for expected cruiser losses during the final invasion of Japan.

As it turned out, the leadship USS Oregon City (CA-122) was still fitting out when WWII ended on 2 September 1945. No ship of this class saw WWII combat.

Now the Oregon City class was a white elephant. With the kamikaze threat gone, the design held little advantage over earlier cruisers, of which the US Navy finished WWII with a surplus. Of the remaining nine ships, USS Albany (CA-123) and USS Rochester (CA-124) were finished in 1946. Six were cancelled in the first round of defense budget cuts on 12 August 1945: five were scrapped incomplete while USS Tulsa (CA-129) had never been started. This left only USS Northampton (CA-125) at Bethlehem Steel’s Fore River, MA shipyard.

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(The mothballed USS Oregon City at NISMF Philadelphia, PA during 1972.) (photo by Jim Cunliffe)

USS Oregon City served only 22 months and was then mothballed, being scrapped in 1973. USS Rochester decommissioned in 1961 and was scrapped in 1974. USS Albany was rearmed with missiles and redesignated CG-10; decommissioning in 1980 and being scrapped in 1990.

the command cruiser conversion

By mid-1945 USS Northampton (CA-125) was 56% complete. On 11 August 1945, 48 hours after the Nagasaki mission and the day before six sister-ships were cancelled, the US Navy instructed Fore River shipyard to cease work on it. The CA-125 contract was terminated in 1946 but the incomplete hull was retained, as the US Navy was now interested in finishing it as a flagship.

During WWII the concept of a dedicated command ship came about to manage complex amphibious assaults. These were conversions of slow auxiliaries. The prospect of using a fast combat-type hull (the never-finished USS Hawaii (CB-3) was also a candidate) was appealing. In 1946 studies began on using the unfinished USS Northampton for this purpose.

Work recommenced on 1 July 1948. The WWII hull as it existed had the propulsion installed, but was unstarted above the weather deck. No weapons had been installed. Not all of the armor aboard was removed but any not yet installed was omitted, and armor removed as part of the conversion was not replaced.

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(The incomplete USS Northampton in 1951.) (photo via navsource website)

The conversion greatly altered USS Northampton from an Oregon City class layout. The superstructure was entirely different with a rounded two-deck bridge. The seaplanes were deleted, and the fantail strengthened to take the weight of a helicopter. There was no hangar however.

(USS Northampton (CLC-1) in December 1951, being fitted out after launch.)

The hull number was changed to CLC-1 for “command cruiser”.

(USS Northampton in 1954, showing the original layout.) (photo via navsource website)

The crew was now 1,251 although 1,675 could be accommodated. USS Northampton had one of the most extensive air conditioning systems ever refitted to a large hull at that time. A NBC washdown system was installed to cleanse exposed decks of radioactive fallout.

A noticeable trait of USS Northampton was the high freeboard (distance between the waterline and weather deck). As part of the conversion an entire extra deck was added above the original weather deck, giving additional enclosed space for offices.

None of the WWII armament was ever installed. The main weapons were four single Mk42 5″ guns.

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(One of the Mk42s on USS Northampton. The “battle E” is a crew excellence award.)

The Mk42 was the intended post-WWII replacement for the excellent Mk12 5″ gun. In the twin Mk38 turret as found on the Sumner, Gearing, and other WWII classes; the Mk12 had been the best 5″ gun in any navy during WWII and today is considered one of the best era-adjusted weapons of all time. To replace it, the Mk42 offered a higher rate-of-fire with an almost a 50% increase in range. The ammo feed system used two separate drums, alternating between shots, effectively making the one single gun a “gun and a half”.

The Mk42 had a ballistic maximum of 12¾ NM and a direct-fire range of 6¼ NM. The AA ceiling was 51,600′. The shell weighed 69 lbs with 7¾ lbs of Composition D. There was one common shell; for AA use a VT (proximity) fuze was fitted while ship-to-ship use would employ an impact fuze. Empty casings automatically ejected out of the turret.

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(Aft Mk42 guns aboard USS Northampton, showing the characteristic “frog eyes”.)

A notable feature was the two plexiglass “frog eyes”. These were for local control of the gun if the off-mount fire controller was disabled. The lefthand “eye” controlled the gun in the ship-to-ship role and the righthand, against aircraft. This setup did not work well and after USS Northampton had already left service, many US Navy ships with Mk42s had one “eye” deleted.

Aboard USS Northampton the Mk42s were paired two forward, two aft. The “B” (upper forward) was off-centreline due to the conversion’s layout.

USS Northampton was one of the first warships to carry this gun. USS Northampton had the Mk42 Mod1 which had many problems. The rate-of-fire was supposed to be 40rpm but was restricted to 28rpm due to jamming. Later on, the Mk42 Mod9 aboard the Knox class frigates was satisfactory, but USS Northampton‘s gunners probably wished surplus WWII Mk12s had been used.

The original secondary armament was four Mk33 twin 3″ guns. This was just a placeholder until the desired weapon was ready. Development of the Mk33 started during WWII, as existing Mk22 3″ guns could not use AA ammo with a proximity fuze. The prototype was test-fired 1 September 1945, one day before WWII ended. Even though it was supposed to be an “interim” design, the Mk33 was tremendously successful.

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(The starboard Mk33 twin 3″ guns. This was an open-mount design.)

USS Northampton‘s desired secondary gun was the water-cooled Mk37 twin 3″. Its development began late in WWII at roughly the same time as the supposedly interim Mk33. The planned development time was 48 months; but it took 10 years.

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(Location of the four amidships Mk37 turrets. This blueprint also shows the offset of the “B” Mk42 5″ gun.)

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(The new Mk37 guns after their installation.)

The Mk37 was overly complicated and had frequent breakdowns. Few warship classes carried it and it was considered a failure. Those aboard USS Northampton were removed during the 1960s.

Easily the most distinguishable feature aboard USS Northampton was the gigantic pole.

This antenna mount (which also carried the navigation radar) was 126′ tall from deck to top, and was the tallest freestanding (no braces or guy wires) pole then installed on any warship. Constructed of light alloy and fibreglass, this pole could withstand 100 kts+ winds.

(The base of the tall pole antenna and one of the smaller “sleeved” UHF antennas which were multiplexed to several different radios.)

A variety of other antenna types were carried, the most prominent being “sleeve”-type which were antennas inside a pylon. Several 35′ whip antennas were carried, along with older livewire types.

(A shorter (but still big) wire antenna pole was forward of the bridge. This photo also shows the fire controller atop the bridge; it guided the 5″ weapons with the small gunnery radar, backed up by WWII-style optical rangefinders sticking out of either side. Another one of the sleeved antennas is forward to starboard of the superstructure.)

A huge number of radios were carried onboard. Naturally many were of Cold War-era design but some WWII equipment, including the TAJ radio, was also integrated in.

Atop the forward superstructure was a huge AN/SPS-2 air search radar. This system’s development started during WWII.

When Germany began firing V-2 ballistic missiles at the UK during 1944, there was no countermeasure to this new type of weapon. One idea put forth by RAF Gen. Frederick A. Pile would entail a “flak box” to destroy the V-2 on its supersonic descent. This concept was a battery of AA guns fired in precise unison at a predetermined “cube of sky”, filling it with explosions and fragmentation. The “flak box” idea had already been used with some success against the subsonic V-1 buzz bomb which was an entirely lesser technology than a ballistic missile.

By March 1945 existing WWII radars could detect V-2s and tell which city would be hit. What was needed for Pile’s idea to work was a very long-range radar which could accurately track a V-2 from its launch in mainland Europe, to determine its speed and flight arc to cue the AA guns.

Germany surrendered in May 1945 before this radar had been developed so the idea was never tested. Estimates on how it would have worked range from a 2% effectiveness to completely useless.

After WWII, the project at General Electric transferred from the US Army to the US Navy. For shipboard use the US Navy just wanted extremely long (300 NM+) detection ranges against aircraft.

(AN/SPS-2 aboard USS Northampton.)

When it made its debut AN/SPS-2 was the most powerful shipboard radar ever. The diamond-shaped antenna was 40’x20′ and weighed 26 tons. The signal was fed through seven horns arranged vertically. Each was slightly less powerful than the one underneath; as planes were easier to detect at higher altitudes and the radar’s ceiling exceeded that of any Soviet warplane then existing anyways.

(AN/SPS-2 aboard USS Northampton in 1962.)

The AN/SPS-2 had a range of 300 NM against a B-29 Superfortress-sized target at high altitude, and 165 NM against a single-engine fighter at that height. The ranges fell at lower altitudes. This radar was accurate ±400yds in range and could give a rough target altitude as well.

AN/SPS-2 was viewed as a critical item for USS Northampton in the late 1940s due to the “pilotfish mission” described later below. Even after that requirement ended, it was advantageous for a flagship to have it.

The biggest drawback was weight. Besides the 26 tons antenna, an additional 22½ tons of waveguides, power supplies, wiring, etc was needed inside the ship. This radar took 26 control consoles with a total of 38 displays to use. Only two ships ever carried AN/SPS-2, the other being USS Little Rock (CG-4), a WWII gun cruiser rearmed with missiles.

On USS Northampton‘s aft superstructure was another radar with roots in WWII, the AN/SPS-3.

(AN/SPS-3 aboard USS Northampton.)

This radar originated during WWII as XDK under the old designation system. It was the result of new threats American warships faced.

(Fritz-X guided bomb and MXY-7 Ohka kamikaze. The former is displayed at the RAF Museum today. The latter was shown in a postwar US Army open house of Axis technology in Indiana, next to a Ju-290.)

On 11 September 1943 USS Savannah (CL-42) was heavily damaged by a Fritz-X radio-controlled bomb. This weapon was deployed by Luftwaffe Do-217 bombers and could fall on a 45º slope, from 18,000′ altitude to sea level in a 18,000′ linear distance. In early 1945, the US Navy began encountering Japan’s Ohka, a rocket-powered kamikaze plane. It approached the target ship at 500 kts (65% faster than a A6M “Zero”).

These new threats posed problems for existing WWII radars. With the target moving as fast as the Ohka, or coming in as steep as a Fritz-X, sometimes radars could not physically move fast enough to keep up, especially if multiple threats were inbound on different bearings.

What the XDK project wanted was something giving a true 3D hemisphere “bubble” of constant coverage, tracking everything in real time within that 3D hemisphere.

WWII ended in September 1945 before XDK was ready. But development continued as AN/SPS-3 in the new designation scheme.

This was ambitious using late-1940s technology. The radar would need real time, “solid dome” coverage 20 miles in diameter and 10 miles in height. To accomplish this, every cubic inch within that hemisphere would need to be refreshed in data every 4 seconds.

The design of AN/SPS-3 was remarkable and was akin to a Russian egg doll. The outer housing and attached dish was set at a severe angle. It rotated at 15rpm. Inside of it were two transmitting elements independently spinning at 1,800rpm and covering -1.9º to +79.8º. By bouncing their energy off the spinning angled dish, full vertical and horizontal coverage was obtained. Inside the elements was a third “egg” with the circuitry, which did not rotate.

If one were to imagine a normal WWII radar like the beam of light from a flashlight, AN/SPS-3 operated instead as a “barber pole” of transmitted energy.

Below decks was the AN/SPS-3’s Weapons Designation System Mk3, which tracked 10 threats simultaneously. They were displayed as moving icons on a large screen. It should be remembered that this wasn’t a modern computer monitor, instead it was done with lightbulbs, lenses, and hinges which in itself is somewhat remarkable.

(USS Northampton during 1954. AN/SPS-3 is on the aft tower. Inboard is USS Albany (CA-123) which would have been a sister-ship had WWII continued longer. To the right is the WWII battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) still in Korean War configuration.) (photo by Larry Bohm)

USS Northampton was the only warship ever fitted with AN/SPS-3 and it was not a success. The intended ranges were never met; a jet fighter the size of a F-86 Sabre could only be detected at 14 NM with an average range of 9½ – 10 NM. The MiG-17 “Fresco”, which entered Soviet service in 1952, could cover that distance in 59 seconds.

After only two years, AN/SPS-3 was removed off USS Northampton and replaced by a conventional AN/SPS-6 air search radar, which in turn was replaced by AN/SPS-29.

(USS Northampton in the 1960s. AN/SPS-29 was mounted where AN/SPS-3 had been. The lower tall-shaped radar is AN/SPS-8, a “nodding” height-finder for the two-dimensional AN/SPS-29. The black thimble is part of the electronic warfare system while the uppermost white item is AN/SRN-6, a beacon to guide helicopters to the ship. Forward, AN/SPS-2 had been removed by then as well.)

career as a flagship

USS Northampton was successful as a flagship. “Snortin’ Nortin” served as flagship for BatCruForLant (a battleship / gun cruiser unit of the 1950s), then for the Atlantic fleet’s amphibious forces, and then the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.

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(USS Northampton as a flagship. This photo dates to the late 1950s as AN/SPS-3 had been replaced by AN/SPS-6 but not yet AN/SPS-29, and Mk37 guns had replaced the Mk33s amidships, but the ship is otherwise in baseline configuration.) (photo by Edward Shaw)

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(This photo dates to 1959 as AN/SPS-29 is now carried on the aft tower, and behind it is the AN/URN-3 TACAN which was soon replaced by AN/SRN-6.) (photo via navsource website)

the pilotfish idea

As work resumed on the unfinished WWII hull in July 1948, one of the missions envisioned for USS Northampton was to be the “pilotfish” for the planned aircraft carrier USS United States (CVA-58).

United_States_(CVA-58)_in_October_1948

(October 1948 artist’s impression of the planned USS United States.)

When WWII ended in 1945 the US Army air forces (to become the independent US Air Force in 1947) had a monopoly on the ability to deliver early nuclear weapons, which were bulky and heavy. To “get back in the game” the US Navy planned a 1,090′-long supercarrier, the USS United States, able to operate the future long-wingspan bombers then thought necessary to carry an atomic bomb. To accomplish this, the design would be wide (190′) and have no island or masts.

A problem therein was that USS United States would have no way to carry the radars and antennas necessary for a carrier’s operation. The solution was a pilotfish, a second warship traveling alongside, which would do all these tasks. USS Northampton was to be the first pilotfish.

Five days after work on USS United States began in 1949, it was cancelled and with it the need for a pilotfish. Some aspects of the concept lived on usefully for USS Northampton in the flagship role.

conversion to NECPA

On 15 April 1961, half a year before the National Emergency Command Post Afloat effort was even official, USS Northampton was reclassified from CLC-1 to CC-1, a basically meaningless hull category intended just for this project.

USS Northampton was an interim NECPA, pending availability of a second ex-aircraft carrier hull to back up USS Wright. Two ships were necessary at all times for the NECPA concept to work.

Even though USS Northampton was numbered sequentially first, the US Navy considered it the “second” ship and a placeholder until a more proper NECPA (USS Saipan) was ready. As such, the changes happened gradually, only after USS Wright was ready and then intermittently during USS Wright‘s “on watch” shifts as the active NECPA.

nh1962newguns

(USS Northampton (CC-1) in 1962, redesignated on paper but still largely unaltered from the flagship look. The AA guns are still aboard as is AN/SPS-2. Atop the foredeck pole is a surplus WWII SK-2 dish. The actual radar was not installed but the dish was used as an early receiver for troposcatter, which is discussed later below.)

The above photo shows two conical monopole radio antennas aft. These were invented after the Korean War, originally to reduce height obstructions around WWII-legacy naval airstations as fast jets replaced propeller planes. The “arms” which “bend” the antenna wires make the lower inwards-facing ends equivalent in a radio sense to the longer upper outwards-facing ones. For example, one 27′ tall with the “bend” at the 9′ mark, would perform as if it were 36′ tall. This was a very useful invention and adapted for shipboard use.

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(USS Northampton in 1964. Compared to two years previous, a second SK-2 troposcatter dish is atop the forward tower replacing AN/SPS-2 and the water-cooled 3″ guns are gone, their mountings plated over. The resupply ship is USS Alstede (AF-48). During WWII it was used to transport frozen perishable rations to the Pacific. It saw use again during the Korean War and was decommissioned in 1969.)

The final rebuild did not happen until the end of the 1960s, shortly before the whole NECPA program wound down.

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(Installation of the big troposcatter dish atop the forward tower.) (photo via navy-radio.com website)

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(USS Northampton in 1970, showing the full NECPA rebuild.)

In its final form, USS Northampton was again reconfigured. Both of the forward, and one of the aft, 5″ guns were removed. The forward deckhouse area was greatly enlarged. The amidships 3″ guns had already been removed but below decks, their magazine and ammo hoist spaces were converted for other uses. The gunfire controller atop the bridge was deleted. The existing NBC warfare systems were retained, and internally the ship could also generate a slight overpressure which would limit fallout ingestion if a hatch or vent was left open. Many NECPA-specific spaces below decks were built, including a “war room” and a stateroom for the President.

USS Northampton did not serve long in this final configuration. The ship decommissioned on 8 April 1970.

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(The ex-USS Northampton in mothballs in 1978, inboard of the ex-USS Springfield; a WWII cruiser and furthest from the pier the ex-USS Newport News; which commissioned in 1949 and was the last American gun cruiser built. None of these three would ever be reactivated again.) (US National Archives photo)

USS Wright

the Saipan class

CVLs (light aircraft carriers) were unique to the WWII US Navy. They were faster and more useful than the little escort carriers (CVEs) but less-capable and smaller than the Essex class CVs. About 3½ months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a prewar plan to convert nine incomplete Cleveland class light cruisers was put into action; they became the Independence class CVLs. The last of these commissioned midway through WWII in 1943.

In 1944 two additional CVLs were ordered, but using the Baltimore class heavy cruiser hull as the template.

Besides being bigger, the difference was that these two were strictly speaking, not “conversions” as neither cruiser hull had been started yet. The shipwrights knew from the first moment of planning that they would be aircraft carriers. As such, fewer compromises were needed.

The Saipan class displaced 19,000t and measured 664′ x 115′ x 28′. Powered by a Baltimore class’s engine room, the top speed was 33 kts. They were intended to carry 42 WWII-sized warplanes. The complement was 1,700. They had a heavy AA armament, forty-two 40mm guns. Two were ordered, USS Saipan (CVL-48) and USS Wright (CVL-49).

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(USS Wright in the late 1940s. The radar on the forward mast’s rear platform is the rarely-seen SR-4. Made by Federal Telephone & Radio, SR-4 was intended to overcome anticipated new German and Japanese jamming systems but was completed too late to make any difference in WWII.)

USS Wright as an aircraft carrier after WWII

When WWII ended on 2 September 1945, USS Saipan was structurally complete but still fitting out. USS Wright was launched one day before WWII ended and needed significant additional work.

With WWII over, much like the Oregon City class described earlier the Saipan class was sort of a white elephant. The postwar US Navy had as many full-sized Essex class ships as it needed and had already started the even bigger Midway class. There wasn’t a need anymore for these two ships but as they were so far along, it was decided to finish them. With the shipyard now at a peacetime schedule, USS Wright did not commission until February 1947.

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(USS Wright across from USS Leyte (CV-32) five years after WWII. Essex class CVs had great potential to be enlarged and modernized during the Cold War. CVLs did not.)

USS Wright was used first as a pilot training carrier and naval reservist training ship. During the Korean War, USS Wright was assigned to the Mediterranean and saw no combat.

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(USS Wright with F2H Banshee jet fighters.)

The photo above shows the challenges of using unmodified WWII aircraft carriers with postwar planes. Jets like the Banshee were larger and had higher landing speeds than WWII propeller fighters like the Hellcat and Corsair. They also took up more space. The Banshee was designed with a second, tiny nose gear so that on the flight deck, the main nosewheel would be retracted and the plane “kneel”. The idea was that it would project the jet exhaust upwards when taxiing and that the planes could be lined up in the hangar deck one half-under another. This feature did not live up to expectations and was not repeated.

USS Wright later participated in the “Wigwam” test, a live detonation of a Mk90 nuclear depth charge during 1955. USS Wright decommissioned into reserve on 15 March 1956, after only 9 years as a carrier. While in reserve the US Navy reclassified it to an airplane transporter (AVT) but Congress never allocated funds to carry out that conversion.

a side note: USS Annapolis as an AGMR

USS Gilbert Islands (CVE-107) was a Commencement Bay class escort aircraft carrier, a late-WWII type which ended up being the last CVEs ever built. USS Gilbert Islands participated in the Okinawa and Balikpapan battles of WWII. CVEs had little tactical niche in the postwar US Navy and USS Gilbert Islands decommissioned in 1946. The ship was recommissioned during the Korean War, entering mothballs a second time during 1955.

During the early 1960s the ex-USS Gilbert Islands was renamed USS Annapolis (AGMR-1) and converted into the first long-range radio relay ship. For this, most aviation-related features were removed, a rounded enclosed bow was installed, and large antennas were put on the former flight deck.

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(USS Annapolis (AGMR-1), the former USS Gilbert Islands (CVE-107) of WWII.)

USS Annapolis recommissioned on 22 June 1963 and was a success. The empty former flight deck allowed tall antennas to be seated at optimal locations to maximize their range and eliminate mutual interference. Below decks, the former hangar allowed open spaces to install radio gear without many structural changes. The only real drawback was the limitations of the WWII CVE hull.

USS Annapolis was not a flagship or command vessel. It was simply a floating “antenna farm” to act as a relay for communications. But the design work put into it paved the way for the USS Wright NECPA conversion.

USS Wright as a NECPA

As the NECPA proposal came together in the early 1960s, it was desired to merge the concepts of a USS Northampton-type flagship with the layout of USS Annapolis which was only then starting its conversion; but on a larger WWII hull. In 1961 USS Wright was selected.

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The ship was pulled from the Pacific reserve fleet and towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. USS Wright was redesignated CC-2. Although “second” in sequence, the US Navy considered it the premiere of the two NECPA ships. USS Wright recommissioned in the new form on 11 May 1963.

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(USS Wright shortly after recommissioning in 1963. The small, angled thing on the forward part of the former flight deck was a fan room and entryway. The cube on the port edge was the “helix house” and contained radio equipment.) (photo via navsource website)

topside features

As recommissioned, the former flight deck had two tall poles topped with log periodic antennas and also serving as a “trunk” for fan-type antennas. The tops of the log periodic antennas were 114′ above the flight deck. On the port side were three masts which held a two-span, three-wire, T-14-1 livewire antenna system. There were also two conical-monopole antennas, a pole antenna, and numerous whip antennas.

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(USS Wright (CC-2) as recommissioned in 1963. The log periodics, which look like old home TV antennas, used the upper part of the high-frequency spectrum at 10 – 30 MHz. The triple-clothesline antenna supported by the three T-poles used lower frequencies in the 30 -300 KHz range. On the island’s mast is the AN/SRN-6 beacon with the little cylinder of the AN/URD-4 direction-finder and WWII X-3A “nancy” infrared beacon, then a AN/SPS-10 surface search radar and behind and below it the larger AN/SPS-6 air search radar.)

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(USS Wright’s bow was not enclosed during the conversion and remained in WWII form. Above the ship’s bell beneath the flight deck lip, can be seen the four small circular windows of the secondary conn. This was useful when maneuvering pierside with tugboats, and could be an emergency bridge if the island was destroyed. The bases of the T-poles pierced through the bottom of the former flight deck overhang. The big radome port side aft is the AN/SPN-8 radar, which could “blind guide” in helicopters from 6 NM. The whip antennas to the far right are for the AN/SRA-17 VLF radio, and the box the sailors are standing in is the sky lookout, a holdover from WWII. The AN/SPS-6 dish is visible above the island.)

USS Wright retained some WWII armament, four twin 40mm AA guns. The 12-ton airplane loading crane was also retained, to put smallboats into the water.

Despite being irrelevant to the new mission, for whatever reason a towing cable hawser was installed under the rear lip of the former flight deck. By chance in 1968, USS Wright happened to be near USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7) when the latter suffered an engine failure. USS Wright towed USS Guadalcanal to port so it wasn’t a total waste of money.

below-decks features

The real modifications were done inside USS Wright. The forward elevator was deleted and plated over. The hangar deck ahead of frame 95 (slightly aft of the island) was blocked off and a floor installed, turning one deck into two. This entire area was rededicated to the NECPA mission, enough for the President and 300 staffers.

On the uppermost of these two new levels was a big area designated “Senior Authorities Spaces”. This compartment was divided by a removable wall into a conference room for the Joint Chiefs Of Staff and a conference room for the President; with the removable wall allowing them to be joined if desired. Ahead of the Senior Authorities Spaces was the large Presidential stateroom, which had its own security post in the passageway. For various reasons the word “presidential” was not used, instead it was called the “VVIP (presumably, very very important person) Stateroom”. Adjoining it was a second half-sized VVIP Stateroom and a private galley for the two. Also in this area (below the angled flight deck entryway on the picture earlier above) were three smaller VIP staterooms, USS Wright‘s own captain’s stateroom and the captain’s galley, a classified documents library, and quarters for USS Wright‘s own senior officers and visiting officers.

Aft of the Senior Authorities Spaces was the controls for all the NECPA radios, the “Special Projects Office”, and then the actual radio cabinets which ran all the way to the rump hangar.

On the new deck level below, and directly under the VVIP Stateroom, was a large space for secure telephone communications (USS Wright could link into civilian and military telephone systems). Aft of this was the big Operations Center which was a replica of the same at the Pentagon with a 52-seat theatre-style layout and film projection screen, and data display boards on the side. Adjoining it was an “Emergency Action Room” with an armored combination-lock door; presumably this is where the final command to use nuclear weapons would originate. Aft of all this was an intelligence analysis space and a group of slide-out wall maps.

The aft third of the WWII hangar deck, and one elevator, was retained. USS Wright could hangar five (three small, two medium) helicopters but often only two or three were assigned. The hangar also housed four smallboats: two 40′ personnel boats, a 33′ personnel boat, and a 26′ motorboat. These were maneuvered around on wheeled dollies and put into the water with the WWII airplane loading crane.

wrighthelos

(The UH-2 was an unarmed utility version of the SH-2 Seasprite ASW helicopter. The HH-43 Huskie used intermeshed rotors.)

further improvements

During the mid-1960s the communications gear was further enhanced with the addition of a troposcatter dish.

wrightlate1960s

(USS Wright after installation of the troposcatter antenna dish. Its pylon also mounted an electronic warfare system, the black “thimbles”. Behind the AN/SRN-6 atop the island’s mast is a newly-installed 601-4R rod antenna which was a radio receiver. The “sticks” on the two sponsons outboard of the former flight deck are helical antennas inside fiberglass sleeves. Looking at this photo, the “VVIP” or Presidential stateroom would be beneath the angled entryway structure. The railings around the antennas are not decoration. The antennas produced dangerous levels of EM radiation when in use and could discharge static electricity.)

Another new item was the SVLF. A spool of antenna wire was installed below decks aft; it fed out of a tiny hole in the flight deck and was pulled up to 2 miles away by one of USS Wright‘s helicopters. It allowed extremely long-range communications with SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines).

(This booth with all-around visibility controlled the streaming and retrieval of the SVLF wire by a helicopter.)

By the late 1960s, USS Wright was in its final form and considered highly satisfactory. Just like USS Northampton however, the program’s time was coming to an end.

(The final configuration of USS Wright. The troposcatter dish made the “clothesline” antenna redundant and it was removed along with the three T-poles in 1968.) (photo via navy-radio.com website)

USS Wright decommissioned on 27 May 1970.

what is troposcatter

In the final form of these two ships, a notable thing was the huge troposcatter dishes which were often incorrectly assumed to be a new radar type.

In 1940, a year and a half before the USA entered WWII, radarmen aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5) were doing exercises in the Pacific and noticed that if the carrier’s CXAM radar was at maximum scanning elevation, it was detecting the California coastline at an impossible 450 NM, seven times the CXAM’s range. This phenomenon was repeatable under certain circumstances, and if somebody on the other end was waiting with a properly-tuned receiver, morse code could be sent by manually keying the CXAM on and off. Before WWII radar wasn’t completely understood and at that time, this was considered an amusing quirk but of no use.

What was happening was tropospheric signal scattering, or troposcatter; when electromagnetic energy bounces off the troposphere (the upper limit of Earth’s lower atmosphere) in a ∧-shaped pathway. This can be done with frequencies in the upper end of the VHF band and the UHF band.

Knowledge of the EM spectrum and Earth’s atmosphere increased during WWII. From 1954 – 1959, the Naval Research Laboratory conducted studies on how to make this useful. By 1955 it had been perfected enough to send both coded pulse and voice signals, and in February 1956 the WWII attack transport USS Thuban (LKA-19) used a WWII-surplus SK-3 radar dish (as was later done aboard USS Northampton) as a makeshift troposcatter antenna to send UHF voice communications over 630 NM.

(USS Thuban (here before the troposcatter experiments) fought in the Marianas, Marshalls, Leyte Gulf, and Iwo Jima battles during WWII and then again in the Korean War. USS Thuban decommissioned in 1967 and was scrapped in 1984.) (photo from All Hands, the US Navy’s magazine)

For the NECPA project, the troposcatter system was a tremendous add-on, as it allowed the ships to range up to 200 NM off the USA’s east coast if necessary.

(The troposcatter antenna aboard USS Wright.)

To communicate with the NECPA ships, several troposcatter stations were built along the Atlantic coast. These stations could be linked by other radio to give the NECPA direct communications with anywhere in the eastern USA.

(The two dishes at the Ft. Miles installation. The concrete tower was a spotting post for the base’s guns during WWII.)

Ft. Miles in Delaware had been a US Army coastal defense artillery station during WWII. The transmitting elements for the troposcatter system were initially installed inside Battery Hunter, a WWII concrete pillbox for M1903 6″ guns.

the rise & fall of NECPA

In August 1957, the USSR tested the crude SS-6 “Sapwood” ICBM. The USA (both the military and the civilian government) grew concerned about what is today called Continuity Of Operation (COO); the ability for the nation’s leadership to exercise command during and after a nuclear war. In October 1960 the Joint Chiefs Of Staff started a project called JACE (Joint Alternative Command Element); to find places other than the Pentagon where this could be accomplished.

On 16 October 1962, the final doctrine was made official. It would have three “legs” – on land, in the air, and at sea. All three had been foreseen and were already underway or even nearly completed.

The land element was the Alternative National Military Command Center (ANMCC), a huge ultra-hardened bunker excavated under Raven Rock mountain near the Pennsylvania / Maryland state line 52 miles from Washington DC.

The air element was the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), several EC-135J Silver Dollar planes at Andrews AFB outside of Washington DC.

(EC-135J Silver Dollar plane.) (photo via Pima Air & Space Museum)

The sea element was to be the National Emergency Command Post Afloat (NECPA) ships described above. Within the US Navy planning was already well underway. In March 1962, NECPA was officially made an active command of the US Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. USS Northampton had already been redesignated and piecemeal changes made to it, while USS Wright was already shortlisted for a more proper conversion.

The NECPA requirement spelled out a need for the ships to operate up to 200 NM into the Atlantic, but before the troposcatter systems were fully up that would be difficult while still retaining constant command authority. It also endangered the ships to Soviet submarines. For these reasons Chesapeake Bay was considered a good operating area for NECPA.

Chesapeake Bay is an irregular-shaped 64,000 miles² body of water about 200 miles long and 10 – 37 miles wide. The inlet is a choke point north of Virginia Beach so it would be fairly easy to “cordon off” with anti-submarine assets.

To get the President, or whomever in the line-of-succession, from the Pentagon to the NECPA ship along with senior military officials was assigned to the US Air Force’s 2857th Test Squadron at Olmsted AFB, PA. It flew blue CH-3B helicopters, a special version of the US Navy’s SH-3 Sea King ASW helicopter. Their secret task was code-named “Outpost Mission”. Obviously depending on the situation any helicopter might be necessary. USS Wright could land twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks. USS Northampton was limited to small or medium types. If the President was coming directly from the White House instead of the Pentagon, presumably “Marine One”, the normal presidential helicopter (at that time the VH-3, another Sea King derivative) might be used.

By 1964 both NECPA ships were fully operational and the two-ship rotation (one at sea, the other in port under repair or resting the crew) was in effect.

USS Wright was clearly the superior design. USS Northampton suffered from mispropogation, which is where radio signals undesirably “bounce around” structures near the antenna, which was unavoidable with the cruiser-legacy setup of the ship. On the other hand USS Wright‘s former flight deck allowed clear placement of antennas. Below decks, not only were the NECPA facilities on USS Wright better, they were laid out more sensibly. Five times as much of the NECPA-related floor space aboard USS Wright was contiguous than USS Northampton. This was due to the “blank canvas” the WWII hangar deck offered. Besides actually carrying helicopters itself, USS Wright was intended to land two simultaneously and probably could land three at a time in an emergency. USS Northampton could only handle one at a time, which would waste precious time getting everybody aboard.

(USS Wright (CC-2) in the late 1960s.)

Furthermore USS Wright, even at its peak in 1970, still had excess space for future growth. USS Northampton was already full and any new gear developed would require something else to be removed.

The US Navy viewed USS Northampton as an interim NECPA only. The desired second unit was USS Wright‘s sister-ship, USS Saipan, which had been in mothballs since 1957.

In March 1963 USS Saipan was towed to Alabama Drydock’s Mobile, AL shipyard to be converted into a NECPA. But this was not to be. Just as work began, the US Navy decided it needed another radio-relay more urgently so the renamed USS Arlington recommissioned as an AGMR in August 1966.

(USS Arlington (AGMR-2), the former USS Saipan, on duty during the Vietnam War.)

Perhaps nobody realized it at the time, but the non-use of USS Saipan for the NECPA project was already the last nail in the coffin of the program. However handwriting was already on the wall before then.

When the whole COO theory began, it was initially thought that the seaward leg would be the best of the three options. This did not pan out.

The obvious disadvantage of the Raven Rock bunker was that it was a fixed target, albeit one which would take a high-yield, direct nuclear hit to eliminate. The USSR’s SS-7 “Saddler”, its main 1960s ICBM, had a warhead potent enough but also poor accuracy with an error of ±2½ miles which may not have been sufficient. Assuming it survived, Raven Rock offered many benefits before or after a nuclear exchange. National authorities could continue to manage the crisis as well as from the Pentagon and if needed, do so indefinitely after the latter’s destruction.

NEACP planes held every advantage. Once the President and military leadership made the quick hop from Washington to Andrews AFB in time to get the EC-135J off the runway, the plane was untouchable by the Soviets as it could safely fly high anywhere inside the USA’s airspace, refueling in the air as needed. In the air, it had AN/ARC-89 and AN/ARC-34 UHF radios and more importantly could reposition national authorities anywhere on the continent to the best surviving command location on land.

NECPA held few advantages. Ships were the most expensive option in peacetime. Furthermore, for the idea to work, one had to be at full operation at sea at all times. To get the President and military leadership aboard (assuming the best possible location in Chesapeake Bay) would require 45 minutes to 1 hour by the CH-3Bs. It was undesirable to have leadership out of touch that long, as optimally the “Outpost Mission” repositioning would happen at the peak of a crisis but still with time for last-ditch diplomacy to avert an ICBM exchange.

During the 1960s the potency of fallout from high-yield groundbursts was more appreciated and Chesapeake Bay was viewed as a problem. The bay would receive significant fallout from Baltimore and Washington, and also Andrews AFB, Norfolk Naval Base, Ft. Detrick, and Langley AFB. It would be one of the most radioactive areas of the USA after an ICBM exchange. Both NECPA ships had washdown systems and air filters. But naval NBC defense is intended that the warship be able to operate in and then exit a radioactive area safely, not intentionally loiter there for protracted periods.

The solution was to capitalize on the troposcatter system’s ability to communicate out to 200 NM in the open Atlantic. The tradeoff was that the NECPA would now be at risk to Soviet submarines. There was also still the issue of sooner or later having to return the President and military leaders to shore eventually.

While NECPA was thankfully never used in its intended role, USS Wright traveled with President Johnson to Uruguay in 1967 to provide a secure constant link to North America, a novelty on the pre-satellite era. USS Northampton later performed the same role during a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders off Central America’s Pacific coast.

In 1964 Adm. David McDonald requested that NECPA be shrunken to just USS Wright, which would half the US Navy’s expense on the project but leave periods with no ship available. The Joint Chiefs Of Staff refused the request. In 1965, Adm. McDonald made the same request and was again refused. In 1965 a separate study concluded that the project was unfeasible from a planning standpoint after the non-selection of USS Saipan; USS Northampton and USS Wright required two completely different “Outpost Mission” plans due to their differing capacities and abilities to quickly cycle aboard helicopters. (A grimly amusing side point was that some staffers were eligible for USS Wright but abandoned to their fate if USS Northampton was the on-duty NECPA.)

In 1969, just as the final and expensive upgrades had been made to the two ships, the US Navy requested $0 for NECPA in the FY’70 budget. This was approved by Congress and with that the project died. USS Northampton decommissioned on 8 April 1970 and USS Wright on 27 May 1970. Both were scrapped in 1980.

The only part of the 1960s COO plan which survives in its original form under the original name is NEACP. As of 2021 the kit is four E-4 Nightwatch jets. The US Navy never again considered a mission like this.

(The ex-USS Northampton being cut up for scrap in 1980.) (photo by Len Glaser)

4 thoughts on “WWII warships as “floating White Houses”

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