U.S. Navy's Oldest Deployable Warship Turns 50

blue ridge
USS Blue Ridge (U.S. Navy file image)

Published Nov 16, 2020 7:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

The command ship USS Blue Ridge celebrated her 50th year in service in a ceremony on November 14 at Yokosuka, where she has been based since 1979. 

“As the oldest ship in the fleet, she still runs like new, which wouldn’t be possible without the support of our local Yokosuka community,” said Capt. Craig Sicola, commanding officer of USS Blue Ridge. “For over four decades the local maintenance facilities and community members have been dedicated to helping us keep Blue Ridge in operation and ready to serve in the region.”

USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of 7th Fleet, has been in commissioned service longer than any other vessel in the U.S. Navy (save for the 1797-built frigate USS Constitution, which serves primarily as a museum ship). Blue Ridge was laid down at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1967, and her commissioning ceremony was held in November 1970. She was purpose-built to serve as an afloat command post for amphibious assault operations, with space and comms equipment for a large complement of officers and staff. 

In 1972, Blue Ridge served in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Easter Counteroffensive amphibious assault operations againt North Vietnamese forces. When South Vietnam finally fell in April 1975, her crew participated in the frantic helicopter airlift to evacuate personnel from the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

From 1979 to 1984, Blue Ridge and other ships in the Western Pacific participated in Operation Boat People, a mission to rescue Vietnamese refugees off Vietnam's coast. In October 1980, Blue Ridge rescued 91 refugees from two separate small boats, earning her the Humanitarian Service Medal.

Blue Ridge took over the role of 7th Fleet flagship in 1979, and she has been based out of 7th Fleet's home port in Yokosuka ever since. Apart from a stint as the commander's flagship for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command during the first Persian Gulf War, her primary role over the intervening years has been in goodwill port visits, diplomatic engagements, naval exercises, disaster relief and capacity-building efforts in the Western Pacific. 

"There is no better ship to support us as our flagship. Year after year she has enabled operations of the largest forward fleet, while at the same time participating in enduring joint service and multi-national exercises, and supporting disaster relief operations." said Vice Adm. Bill Merz, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet. "Everyone knows Blue Ridge, she has a rich history here in the region. The capabilities she offers to the fleet have served us well in the 7th Fleet area of operations."

In recent years, Blue Ridge gained notoriety for the participation of former crewmembers and officers in the sprawling Glenn Defense Marine Asia contracting scandal, better known as the "Fat Leonard" affair. Nearly three dozen officers, petty officers and civilians have been charged in connection with the scheme, which ran from the mid-2000s until 2013. Among others, the perpetrators included U.S. Navy Captain Jesus Vasquez Cantu, who served as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics for the Commander of Seventh Fleet aboard USS Blue Ridge in 2007. In a guilty plea, Cantu admitted to accepting meals, entertainment, travel expenses, and the services of prostitutes from GDMA in exchange for information and assistance gained via his official role. In 2008, five Blue Ridge officers allegedly attended a "raging multi-day party, with a rotating carousel of prostitutes" sponsored by GDMA during a port call in Manila, according to prosecutors.