From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
When the warship slipped into the frigid waters at Quincy, Mass., 54 years ago, there was a lot riding within the ship’s broad beam. The guided missile destroyer leader Bainbridge, launched on April 15, 1961, was the first nuclear-powered destroyer.
The ceremony was held just 10 miles from where the ship’s namesake: Commodore William Bainbridge, was superintendent of the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. The destroyer would be the fourth ship named after the commodore, infamous as the commander of USS Philadelphia, captured by the Barbary pirates and imprisoned for nearly for two years, and as the commander of USS Constitution during her War of 1812 glory years.
By the time of Bainbridge’s commissioning 20 months later, she became the third nuclear-powered surface ship in the Navy, joining aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN 65) and cruiser Long Beach (CGN 9). The submarine Nautilus (SSN 571) had already proved a resounding success having been commissioned in the Navy in 1954.
The first – and only one – of her class of destroyer leaders (she would later be reclassified a guided missile cruiser), Bainbridge was clearly built to perform a number of missions. She was broader in beam (58 feet) than most cruisers (55 feet) and only two feet shorter at 565 feet than a cruiser, with a speed of 34 knots and a crew that grew to nearly 600.
At the time, most destroyers, while wider in the beam at 66 feet, were only 510 feet in length, with a speed of 30+ knots and a crew of 323.
The reactor compartments – buried deep within the ship – contained 100 tons of lead shielding to protect the crew from the radiation created from the fissioning of nuclear fuel within the reactor. The pressurized water of the primary system transferred the heat generated by fission across the metal U tubes of the steam generators, creating steam in the secondary system that was used to drive the turbines for propulsion and to generate electricity.
After the energy was extracted from the steam by the generators, the steam returned to liquid form in the condensers, and was recirculated back to the steam generators. The water from this secondary system did not mix with the primary system water that passed through the reactor core. This design created a protective barrier that contained any radioactivity to within the primary system of the reactor compartment.
All that was easy; the tricky part was recreating a nuclear power plant that could withstand a ship’s rigorous operations within a variety of sea-states, and provide power automatically under combat conditions – all while keeping the environment stable within the reactor.
With the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis being carried out a few hundred miles away, Bainbridge carried out her sea trials shortly after her October 1962 commissioning, performing antisubmarine warfare and gunnery training off the waters stretching from Charleston northward to the Virginia capes.
Just months later in February 1963, Bainbridge became the flagship of Destroyer Squadron 18, homeported in Charleston, S.C. A couple days later, Bainbridge joined Enterprise and 20 other ships of Task Force 25 as they trained in tactics of formation steaming and inter-ship communications while crossing the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. More than once, Enterprise and Bainbridge cruised alone while the conventionally-powered ships were forced to refuel or change course to refuel due to weather conditions.
Bainbridge’s remarkable success – from her sea trials to service in the Navy – was part of a Joint Committee report offered to Congress in Dec. 1963 that urged “The United States must prosecute vigorously the conversion of the Navy to nuclear propulsion in the surface fleet as well as in the submarine fleet.”
The report was written in part because the Department of Defense had announced in October 1963 to build the proposed and unnamed CVA 67 as a conventionally-powered aircraft carrier, rather than the proposed nuclear-powered one like Enterprise. Just a few weeks later, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, and to honor him, the Navy named the aircraft carrier after the former PT boat commander.
Capt. Raymond E. Peet, commanding officer of Bainbridge, testified before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy about his ship’s performance.
“Nuclear power does an awful lot for a destroyer. It gives us a new dimension really,” Peet told the committee. “Up to now our limit has been fuel – just how far can we go on fuel — that is no longer a limit with the Bainbridge.”
Nuclear-power also gave Bainbridge the advantage of anti-submarine warfare potential. During one operational exercise in the Mediterranean, Peet explained, his ship was asked to provide antisubmarine warfare support for amphibious operations. He got there 12 hours ahead of any other ship due to Bainbridge’s high-speed endurance, and was able to locate an attacking submarine and put it out of action.
The Navy hasn’t “begun to tap the possibilities” of nuclear power and what it means to have a “real ready unit” that offers “seapower right from the word ‘Go,’” Peet said in his testimony.
“Nuclear power in a destroyer does give you another dimension. We talk of readiness. Our job is to be ready to do whatever we need to do,” he testified. “We know the reactors are ready at a moment’s notice. We always have full power on the line. All we have to do is to open the throttle and go. You can accelerate in a hurry. You can go from dead stop to full speed and stop again. You can do this as many times as you want with a nuclear powerplant. I don’t care whether it is India, South America, South Africa – any place. It is ready to go as fast as it takes me to pull in the lines and get going. We haven’t begun to tap the possibilities here.”