On July 31, 1964, three nuclear-powered Navy ships left Norfolk, Virginia, to begin their journey around the globe without refueling. The following account of Operation Sea Orbit’s success was published in the March 1965 issue of Proceedings.
OPERATION SEA ORBIT
By Rear Admiral Bernard M. Strean, U.S. Navy, Commander, Task Force One
The U. S. Navy is an old hand at “showing the flag,” at conducting good will visits, and at entertaining foreign dignitaries on board ship. The Navy is also an old hand at conducting test and evaluation cruises, and at establishing records. But rarely does the Navy have the opportunity to do all of things in one operation.
Operation Sea Orbit, the unprecedented around-the-world cruise by the Navy’s three nuclear-powered surface ships, did all of these things and more. Not since President Theodore Roosevelt sent out the Great White Fleet of 16 first-line battleships in December 1907, had the Navy attempted such a cruise.
The three ships which comprised Task Force One, formed specifically to carry out Sea Orbit, were no longer news in the Navy. The attack carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65), and guided missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9), and the guided missile frigate Bainbridge (DLGN-25) had a total of eight years service, but the three ships had never operated together as a unit, as a self-contained task force, until Sea Orbit.
Until Sea Orbit, no ship in history had ever covered a route of 30,500 miles in 64 days. Task Force One covered the 30,500-mile track in this time, with 57 actual steaming days, keeping its schedule almost to the minute. Throughout this period, the ships maintained a speed in advance of 22 knots, operating in all conditions of sea and weather. The three ships were in the Indian Ocean in the monsoon season, rounded Cape Horn during the Southern hemisphere’s winter, crossed the equator four times, and, in all, experienced two winters, two summers, one autumn, and one spring.
It is not enough merely to say that this could only have been accomplished with nuclear-powered ships. Nuclear power deserves credit, certainly, but so also do the officers and men of the Task Force. This was a long, hard cruise for the personnel. The usual exercises, tests, and alerts were carried out, as on all cruises, but, because of the nature of this task force, many extra exercises and tests were conducted. And, because of the good will aspect of the cruise, all of us, to a man, were called upon for an extra effort.
The major effort in the good will part of Operation Sea Orbit was given to the “underway” visits. For these visits, the Enterprise would launch two, three, or four of her C-1A Trader aircraft to fly inshore, pick up foreign government officials, and fly them back to the carrier for briefings and to view an air fire-power demonstration. All of this was accomplished while the Task Force was underway. The aircraft would leave the carrier when the ship was from 45 to 190 miles offshore, depending on the country concerned. In the first phase of the cruise, we conducted underway visits for officials from six African countries: Morocco, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast in West Africa, and Kenya in East Africa. Subsequently, we conducted underway visits for dignitaries from Pakistan, Australia (separate visits for PerthFremantle, Melbourne, and Sydney), and New Zealand. Off South America we had visists for Argentina and Uruguay. Finally, off Brazil, we took on board groups from Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Recife.
Because of our tight steaming schedule, our speed of advance, the distance offshore, the necessity to hold the fire power demonstrations far from shipping lanes, the range of the C-1A aircraft, and the eight-passenger capacity of each aircraft, we were limited in the number of guests we could accommodate. We therefore sought persons of at least cabinet rank or the equivalent. In most countries, thanks to the efforts of the U.S. ambassadors and naval attaches, we were successful.
Very few of our high-ranking foreign guests had ever made a carrier landing before, and we found that only a few indicated, or at least would admit, to some nervousness about it. Needless to say, practically every man on board the carrier considered, at one time or another, the embarrassment which would result to the U.S. government if we dropped a high-ranking foreign government official in the sea. Flight and deck crews were specially briefed and ready for every contingency in this regard, but all take-offs and landings were faultless.
The seating arrangement in each plane and the landing sequence of the planes was worked out in advance for each visit; this was to delay the highest ranking guest the least time possible before all the guests were assembled. With this arrangement, there was a minimum of waiting for anyone. The flight deck officers and crew worked out a procedure whereby four C-1As could be landed and all 32 passengers could be disembarked, greeted by senior officers on the flight deck, and assembled on the flight deck elevator within four and a half minutes!
As soon as the party was on the elevator, it would be taken down to the hangar deck. There, in what one African cabinet minister described as a “dramatic military dress parade at attention,” were side boys flanking a length of red carpet, at the end of which stood the task force commander and the commanding officer of the Enterprise. Seventy-two Marines formed the honor detachment and a 16-piece band rendered the honors. On three sides of this formation were four ranks of sailors at attention, 230 in all. Our guests knew we were out to impress them, but they liked it. They knew we wanted to honor and not flatter them.
After honors were rendered, the visitors were led a short distance down the hangar deck for a brief welcoming address and slide presentation to enable them to appreciate fully what they were soon to see in the firepower demonstration. The welcoming address and slide presentation were basically the same for every country. We had to consider the political sensitivity of the African countries-many of our African guests had just come from the Cairo Conference of the Organization of African Unity where there was considerable discussion of “nuclear dangers” -and be careful not to give national opposition parties political ammunition to embarass our guests at a later date. From visit to visit, our presentations differed slightly. But in every case, the message was the same: the cruise was being made under the motto “Nuclear Power for Peace.”
The visitors were also given information on the capabilities and specifications of the ships and information about Carrier Air Wing Six and its planes. They were advised that during the cruise the ships were not taking on one ounce of food, fuel, or other supplies for the ships. One purpose of the mission, the visitors were told, was to show friends of the United States these powerful and modern ships, and their up-to-date weapons and aircraft. We underlined the fact that the Task Force was an important factor in the determination of the United States to maintain peace and that our nuclear power is dedicated to freedom throughout the world. During every phase of these visits, the briefings centered on the defensive capabilities of the Task Force. We did not apologize for, nor in any way play down, the tremendous offensive capability of Task Force One, but this message came across in its own way during the fire power demonstrations. The tenor of the parting remarks of a number of the guests gave tacit acknowledgement that the best defense is a strong offense.
The remarks of most of the guests reflected their amazement at the high degree of technical sophistication and training in the equipment and the men who operate the equipment. We Americans have come to accept this, but for many of these officials, especially in the areas not normally visited by the Navy, this was their first close look at a huge carrier and her jet planes. The reaction of one visitor, while not necessarily characteristic, mirrored the reactions of our African guests for many of us in the Task Force.
The visitor, Emile Badiane, Minister of Education, Health, and Welfare in Senegal, was representing the president, then on a state visit to France. Minister Badiane watched the entire air show, from the launching through the air demonstration, to the recovery of the aircraft, with hardly a word of comment. As he took the departing honors on the hanger deck, he stepped up to the microphone and made a moving speech of thanks. He declared that he and his colleagues were convinced of the friendliness and good intentions of the United States; “we have watched a demonstration that only a great nation could present.” He pointed out that in his job he is responsible for the education and training of youth, and added: “I only wish our youth could have been here to see what hard work really is.”
For the most part, reactions voiced by the foreign visitors gave a good indication of their national preoccupations. The Africans responded warmly to our statements that this was a nuclear force for peace and that we stood ready to use it for the defense of freedom. They marveled at the high degree of training and professionalism represented in the crews and were particularly impressed by the youth of the aviators who could perform intricate flight maneuvers. The Pakistanis asked questions about the costs and availability of various aircraft and other equipment. The Australians and New Zealanders were more interested in the range of the aircraft, the accuracy of the missiles and rockets, the speed and ability of the ships to get trouble spots quickly and to arrive ready for practically any type of engagement.
Surprisingly, there were very few questions about radiation and radiation hazards. In several of the countries, we held small press conferences on board the carrier, and in Sidney and Rio de Janeiro we held press conferences with more than 50 reporters and corespondent at each place, but questions about radiation were few. This may have been because we addressed ourselves to this subject in the welcoming remarks at every visit and for every press conference, citing theNavy’s long experience in the field and the fact that we have never had an incident attributable to atomic radiation. We also arranged a demonstration with a Geiger counter to show that the amount of radiation present directly over on of the ship’s reactors was less than that from an ordinary, luminous-dial wrist watch.
Except for the newspaper of the Communist party of Australia, none of the press reports we received along our route criticized Sea Orbit. We had anticipated a certain amount of critical comment, particularly on the topic of radiation, but we have not seen any so far. This is, of course, particularly heartening, and may well constitute a great breakthrough for the Navy. It is extremely important that key government officials in foreign countries feel assured that there is no danger involved in the visit of a nuclear-powered warship to their waters and ports.
Task Force One was fortunate in another way; the conduct of the crews ashore was outstanding. Despite the long periods between liberties-taken in Pakistan, Australia, and Brazil-and the size of Task Force One’s complement-6,057 officers and enlisted menthere was not a single incident involving U.S. sailors and members of the local populations. Certainly there were individual morale problems, as on any cruise, long or short. But, in general, the esprit and behavior of the men were of the highest levels. One factor which undoubtedly contributed to this situation was that every member of the Task Force was thoroughly briefed on the aims of the operation. This was not just another cruise for the men. Talks by the ships’ skippers, daily situation reports, stories in the ships’ newspapers, specially prepared port information folders, and special programs on the Enterprise’s closedcircuit TV system all served to get across information on the nature, meaning, and purposes of Operation Sea Orbit.
The purposes of Operation Sea Orbit, stated simply, were:
To test the capability of these nuclear powered ships to maintain high speeds for indefinite periods over long distances in all environments of weather, seas, and seasons, without refueling or replenishment of any kind.
To demonstrate the mobility, flexibility, and strength of this element of U. S. power for keeping the peace.
To show these powerful, modern ships and aircraft to peoples in remote areas of the world.
To familiarize Navy personnel with infrequently visited ocean areas.
To provide training and experience designed to improve our staying power at sea, particularly in remote areas.
To demonstrate our ability to reinforce or to bring U. S. power quickly to areas far from established bases, and to arrive with that power ready to fight.
To enhance the military and political image of the United States.
Many Navy men experience a shudder at that word “image,” with its connotations of Madison Avenue and PIOs with over-active thyroids. Yet, we were acutely conscious of the public affairs aspect of this cruise in our visits arranged for these various foreign countries.
The senior officers of the Task Force met every evening for sessions during which the visits were discussed. We went over the economy and geography of each country, the structure of its government and political parties, its relations with other countries and other pertinent issues. The Department of State, the U.S. Information Agency, and other parts of the government had supplied us with up-todate “position papers” on all the countries where visits were to be held. With the cooperation of the USIA, films produced by the various foreign governments showing their own countries were obtained on loan and projected on the Enterprise’s closed-circuit television with the movies of the three ships. In effect, we first did a good public relations job on ourselves so that we could do a good public relations job for ourselves.
If the press coverage and the amount of radio and TV time in the foreign countries visited, and the comments made and the messages received from our foreign guests are any indication, the men of Task Force One did an outstanding job.