USS BRONSTEIN: The Little Combatant That Made Big Waves

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Published on: 12/27/2008
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USS BRONSTEIN: The Little Combatant That Made Big Waves

The US Navy built several variations of escorts after World War II, including both steamand diesel-powered ships. The 314-ft Dealyclass displaced 1800-tons and had a 600-lb steam plant. Four similar ships of the Claud Jones-class were diesel powered. At 27-kts, steam-powered Dealys had limited speed and firepower, and the diesel Claud Jones had even less of both.

The USS Bronstein (DE-1037)-class of destroyer escorts incorporated several new and important developments in warship design. It was the first ship built with the SQS-26 sonar, as well as the first ship designed with a flight deck for the drone antisubmarine helicopter (DASH). It was one of the first ships to be designed for the anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) system, which could propel a torpedo up to 5-mi away. Bronstein and sister ship USS McCloy (DE-1038) were built at Avondale Shipyard in Louisiana. Both joined the fleet in 1962.

Bronstein's mission was “to screen transoceanic convoys and to operate effectively against submarines,” according to a press release issued upon her commissioning at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1963. The ship was named after Ben Richard Bronstein. Born in 1915 in Manchester, New Hampshire, Ben Richard Bronstein was appointed an assistant surgeon in the Naval Reserve in 1941. He was killed in action 28 February 1942 when an enemy submarine sunk his ship, USS Jacob Jones (DD-130) off Cape May, New Jersey. DE-1037 was the second to bear the name, with the first being USS Bronstein (DE-189).

Lieutenant Commander John McCloy, the namesake of DE-1038, was a recipient of two Medals of Honor. Officials presented his first for his actions in the 1900 relief expedition of the Allied Forces in China, and the second for heroism at Vera Cruz in 1914. McCloy also received the Navy Cross for commanding USS Curlew that cleared mines of the North Sea mine barrage during WWI.

Fahey's Eighth Edition of Ships and Aircraft of the US Fleet refers to these two ships as “graceful newcomers,” and “a smaller type designed for mass production.”

At 371-ft and 2650-tons, Bronstein was longer and heavier than the DeaTy-class, but had the same two 600-psi boilers and a single shaft, and so was slightly slower. The new and longer hull form was designed for the large bow-mounted SQS-26 sonar, as well as ASROC and DASH. Two MK32 triple-mount surface vessel torpedo tubes were installed, which were (and still are) common on most US Navy combatants. The designed speed was 24-kts; certainly fast enough for escorting convoys. The new design also featured an enclosed bridge and fin stabilizers.

The 1037s had 13 officers and 178 crewmembers. The commanding officer was a lieutenant commander selected for early command-at-sea.

Vice Admiral Scott Fry, US Navy, (Ret.), recalls reporting aboard McCloy as communications officer in 1971 at Newport, Rhode Island, then home to the Atlantic Fleet Cruiser-Destroyer Force. “Newport was a big Navy town, and with only two piers ships were nested sometimes four to a berth. Since we were the smallest and had the most junior commanding officer we were always last ship outboard.”

Fry would return to McCloy to command the ship in 1983.

The 1037s were somewhat top-heavy and the large bow sonar caused the ships to trim by the bow, particularly at higher speeds. They were relatively slow for battle group operations.

“McCloy was a remarkable, but somewhat unseaworthy ship,” recalls Capt. Richard Callas who served on McCloy between 1979 and 1983, and later commanded USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7). Callas is currently chief of staff for Strike Force Training Atlantic. “She rode terribly. Because the ship was somewhat topheavy, she tended to roll significantly. I remember routinely doing 30-deg rolls with an occasional 45-deg roll that would send everyone flying about.”

The ship's fin stabilizers were removed in the 1970s because they caused a jerking motion when the ship rolled. Because of the heavy AN/SQS-26 AXR steel sonar dome and the lack of a hurricane bow (which were standard issue on the Charles F. Adams-class guided missile destroyers and even the Knox-class class escorts), McCloys bow tended to “dig” into the seas when were underway.

“The focsle was always awash,” remembers Callas, “even in moderate seas. Yet despite her poor design and poor seakeeping abilities, McCloy consistently 'steamed,' operating from the ice flows in the Arctic to the Caribbean to the Mediterranean Sea. I think as a result, the ship produced some very proficient and seasoned ship handlers.”

Captain Rick Wright, who commanded Bronstein from May 1987 to May 1989, agrees with Callas that the ships were notorious for their seakeeping abilities. “When Bronstein operated off the coast of Alaska in the summer of 1987 in heavy seas, the admiral aboard the amphibious platform dock (LPD) that the frigate was in company with queried the commanding officer via flashing light as to whether 'everything was all right with the ship' as he watched her plunge and roll while his flagship was riding through the rough seas with little apparent trouble. The sailors aboard the LPD subsequently 'redesignated' Bronstein 'SS-1037,' because she frequently looked like a submarine broaching and rolling on the ocean's surface.”

“When I came aboard in 1971, the fin stablizers were two huge lumps of rust,” says Fry. “They never worked. When I came back aboard for my command tour they were gone.”

The new SQS-26 AXR was a very powerful mid-frequency active sonar and much more powerful than the SQS-4 and SQS-23 sonars being used in the fleet at that time. It was the precursor to the very capable AN/SQS-53 series sonar found on combatants in the fleet today. The 26 had a bottom bounce and convergence zone capability, which meant it could detect submarines at greater ranges, so newer and longer range weapons were needed. The 1037s also had the AN/SQR-15 towed array surveillance system (or TASS), which was removed in 1984.

The McCloy received the towed array sonar system (TASS) during an availability at the Boston Naval shipyard in 1977. The installation included a large equipment van that was inserted inside the ship's DASH hangar. The van contained a bank of AQA-5 wide-band acoustic processors (WAPs) used for processing acoustic information from the towed array. The other part of the SQR-15 installation included a large equipment reel with associated deck gear located on the fantail. The reel, manufactured by Western Gear, stored, deployed and retrieved, several thousand feet of 1.25-in tow cable and a several hundred foot towed array of detachable modules containing acoustic hydrophones.

Fry says other changes between his first tour and when he took command was the removal of the after 3-in gun to make room for TASS; an updated radio shack; an additional fire pump, a collection, holding and transfer tank (CHT) system for waste, and the executive officer (XO) had moved up from officers country into the former embarked Destroyer Division commander's cabin. “Even with the XO moved out of officers' country it was still pretty tight living,” he says.

Only two were built. The Bronsteins were followed by the 10 ships of the Garcia-class and Brookeclass guided missile escorts, along with the USS Glover, all of which had a 1200-psi pressure-fired propulsion plant; and the 46 ships of the Knoxclass. These new ships would also have a “mack.” These ships were the first to combine the stack and mast arrangement to a single “mack.”

According to Wright, 'TASS worked great for long range cuing when the host platform was operating far away from the Battle Group.

“The ship had a single 3-in/50-cal gun mount aft that was removed to support the large equipment reel. When operating, the towed array could be streamed in excess of one mile from the ship.

“The AN/SQR-15 proved to be an extremely effective passive narrowband ASW system,” Callas says.

While optimized for ASW, the 1037s had a twin 3-in/50-cal MK33 dual-purpose gun with a MK56 fire control system forward, as well as a single 3-in mount aft of the DASH deck. The after mount was later removed to make room for the TASS. The dual purpose gun could be used against aircraft, ships or targets ashore. Later classes of DEs and DEGs would get the 5-in/38-cal or 5inch 54 gun. The next generation of escort ships, the Oliver Hazard Perryclass, would have a single 76mm gun.

Callas was a gun mount officer during general quarters. “The dual gun 3-in/50-cal mount was a fairly simple and reliable gun system. Each gun had a loader that held five rounds, after that, each round had to be hand loaded. The rate of fire was dependant on the proficiency of the gunnery team. In addition to the mount captain, who sat between the two guns, the surface gunner (port side) and air gunner (starboard side), there were two loaders who pulled rounds out of a temporary rotary service container in the mount and slapped them into the gun breech, plus a team of a dozen personnel that pulled rounds out of the ready service lockers on the foc'sle and placed them in the rotary service containers. From experience, the old 3-in/50-cal could put out as many [if not more] rounds as the automated 5-in/54-cal Mk 45 gun mount system. We could pump out 40 to 50 rounds a minute on a good day.”

The large bow-mounted sonar dome necessitated an unusual anchor configuration. One anchor was mounted on the bow, and a portside anchor was mounted back by the gun mount.

These ships also were the operational test and evaluation platform for the extremely high frequency satellite communications system (EHF SATCOM). “We got our EHF SATCOM in 1973,” Fry recalls. It wasn't a regular piece of comm gear. It had a huge dome antenna upon a lattice structure, installed on our DASH deck. Even though I was the communications officer, only the CO and a few people who came on board to operate it knew what it was for.”

When Fry arrived on McCloy for his first tour, the DASH system had been taken off the ship. The deck and hangar were not big enough for a manned helicopter. But the 1037s would frequently be used to refuel ASW helicopters from other ships using the helicopter in-flight refueling (HIFR) method.

Even though these ships were basically experimental platforms, with one stationed on each coast, they remained in service into the early 1990s. Both were reclassified as frigates (FF) on 30 June 1975. They were relatively inexpensive to operate, and Wright notes that in his 24-months in command he was an opposing force Orange player in five different Third Fleet exercises off the West Coast of the United States and in Hawaiian waters. Bronstein also was a platform of choice to conduct the nascent counter-drug patrols just beginning off the coast of Baja and Central America. In the autumn of 1987, Bronstein served as flagship for the first significant joint Navy/Coast Guard anti-drug patrol in the Pacific termed Blue Pennant Six.

McCloy participated in operations north of the Arctic Circle during the summer and fall of 1972, along with the ASW carrier USS Intrepid (CVS-11). “Our ASW team combined our SQS-26AXR sonar and the Intrepid's SH-3 Sea King ASW helicopters. We operated north of Murmansk and attracted a lot of attention,” Fry says. “We had Soviet Bear and Badger overflights, and Kresta cruisers coming out to look at us. Here I am, an ensign on the bridge wing, staring at a Kresta 77 cruiser, and here's McCloy with our twin 3-in mount forward and single 3-in gun aft.”

The forward gun was in an enclosed mount, which was necessary because the ship took so much water over the bow. The after mount was not enclosed, and because the ship rolled so much it was almost as wet in the back as it was up forward.

“I took her through a storm coming through the Denmark Straits in March of 1984, returning from an ASW exercise called Arctic SHAREM,” Fry recalls. “We sailed into the marginal ice zone in company with the Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Northwind (W-282) to see if we could track submarines under the ice. We watched small ice bergs go by us with TASS in the water. We took a 62-deg roll during the storm and snapped right back. Other ships in company with us had people get injured, but we had nobody get hurt.

“Every time we got underway we rigged for heavy weather even when none was forecast,” says Fry, who added the introduction of the scopolamine patch made a big difference for Sailors who encountered motion sickness on the small combatants.

During the 1970s and 1980s, every battle group deploying to the Mediterranean would find and track Soviet subs. McCloy was a legendary ASW ship, Fry says. “Under my predecessors she won every ASW award possible. Every time she went to the Med she came back with the 'Hook 'Em' award,” he says, referring to the award given to the combatant in each battle group with the best ASW performance.

In 1983, McCloy was dispatched to the “Yankee Box,” a station off the US Eastern seaboard where the Soviets kept a Yankee-class ballistic missile sub with the range to attack US cities. “We were diverted to go find a Soviet Victor III, a brand new Soviet nuclear submarine that we had never seen in the Western Atlantic. With our TASS system we located the Victor III at extended range off Charleston but because of deteriorating weather and heavy shipping. I wanted to get closer so we could pick him up in 'direct path.' We took in our tail and sprinted down to where we calculated we would pick him up. We streamed out the array and I went into the TASS van that we had installed inside the DASH hangar to see if we had reestablished contact.”

The TASS display showed a very solid contact. So strong that Fry knew he was right on top of the Soviet boat. “Just then we felt a shudder and we lost array power. The tail stretched, and then snapped like a whip. The after lookout is standing 5-ft from the cable drum and was reporting that the cable was flying up above our mack like a whip, then'birdcaged'in the reel. We still had the Victor 777 passively on our 26. We handed him off to a P-3,1 sent an OPREP-3 Pinnacle Front Burner [a “highest precedence” emergency notification message to the highest levels of the Navy], and we went back into Norfolk where I expected to be relieved for cause. Shortly after the investigation commenced, the commander of the second Fleet, Vice Adm. Joe Metcalf sent a message to wide distribution that said, When McCloy gains contact, McCloy confirms contact. A new tail is on the way.' And that was the end of the investigation.”

The next day, a Navy P-3 sighted a Soviet Victor III attack submarine stopped on the surface 282-mi west of Bermuda and 470-mi east of Charleston, South Carolina. A few days later a Soviet tug takes the boat under tow and into Cienfuegos, Cuba.

“It was the first good look at the non-circular hull of the V-777and her counter-rotating propellers,” says K. J. Moore, co-author of Cold War Submarines. “She was embarrassed, we got a good look, and she got a good length of array.”

In addition to being an extraordinarily capable ASW platform, the ship was engaged in a number of contingency operations. The ship covered the evacuation of Beirut in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War. “The ship was there in 1982 covering the landing of the Marines into Lebanon and escorted merchant ships carrying Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters out of Beirut as part of the cease fire between Israel and the PLO,” Callas recalls.

Both were decommissioned in December 1990, and sold to Mexico in October 1993.

Admiral Paul David Miller, Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Fleet, and a former commanding officer of McCloy, delivered the decommissioning speech at Naval Station Norfolk 14 December 1990, in near gale force winds. Captain Wright, then working for the admiral after his command tour in Bronstein, helped prepare the remarks. In his closing remarks, Admiral Miller noted, “McCloy has long-served as a proving ground for youthful naval leadership. She has never been commanded by someone who initially was any more senior than a lieutenant Commander, and along with her sister ship, USS Bronstein, remained one of only two lieutenant Commander frigate commands in the United States Navy. As the 13 other former commanding officers of these two ships here today can attest, that fact has long been a distinction of pride to all who have been fortunate to lead these two ships.”

FF-1037 is now the Hermenegildo Garcia (F-202) and FF-1038 is the Nicolas Bravo (F-201), based at Manzanillo.

Edward Lundquist is a senior science advisor with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, DC. This story originally appeared in Surface Warfare magazine.

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