Historic nuclear cruiser headed to scrap heap

September 18, 2012

The USS Long Beach, the first nuclear-powered surface warship, went around the world in a 1964 tour designed to showcase the possibilities of nuclear propulsion.

The sleek, one-of-a-kind cruiser made stops in Pakistan, New Zealand and Brazil over two months and didn’t need a single refueling.

Now, the ship, which is docked in Bremerton, Wash., is saying its final goodbyes. But there won’t be a ceremonial sinking; instead, the Navy is sending the ship off for scrap.

This summer, the cruiser was sold online by Government Liquidation, a Web site that allows buyers to bid for the Pentagon’s surplus and scrap assets. The winning bidder, Tacoma Metals, will now haul away millions of pounds of steel, aluminum and other raw materials.

For some of the Long Beach’s former crew, it will be a sad farewell to the historic ship, which was built as the Navy was experimenting with nuclear propulsion.

“It was one of a kind,” said Wayne Berry, 71, a reactor operator who spent about a year and a half on the ship in the late 1960s. “They’ve never built another one like it.”

The Navy has an inactive ships program to manage vessels that have reached the end of their lives. The options include using the ships as targets for gunnery practice, selling them to allied navies, cutting them up into scrap or even turning them into reefs.

However, nearly all nuclear-powered ships and submarines are turned into scrap, according to a Navy spokesman.

In the Long Beach’s case, the superstructures and reactors were removed, along with any other radioactive elements. By the time it landed on Government Liquidation’s Web site, it was simply another hulk of steel, aluminum and copper.

Although Tacoma Metals declined to say how much it paid for the Long Beach, an industry group, American Metal Market, estimated the value at between $885,000 and $895,000. About 25 percent of the auction price will go to Government Liquidation.

The men who sailed in the Long Beach remember it as a lot more than a pile of scrap.

Lowell H. Frauenholz was a “plank owner” in 1961, meaning he was on board when the ship was put in commission.


The USS Long Beach, the nation's first nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, in Massachusetts Bay on July 26, 1961. Now, the Navy is sending the ship off for scrap. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Something happens when you put a ship in commission,” he said, comparing it to building a first home. “Turning it from a development into a beautiful operating machine just sticks with you.”

During his time on the ship, Frauenholz said he kept a diary, which he still has. He recalled “killer” games of poker and one instance in which another crew member smeared a common sitting area with grease to keep sailors off it. Frauenholz and a friend found the crew member’s jacket and used it to protect themselves from the grease, angering the thwarted crew member.

The sprawling 721-foot ship, the last built on a traditional cruiser hull, was one of the last warships to be fitted with teak decks and was the first American cruiser to be constructed entirely new after World War II.

It still saw plenty of combat.

In 1968, while stationed at the Gulf of Tonkin, the Long Beach shot down a North Vietnamese aircraft from more than 70 miles away, marking the first time a surface-to-air missile had taken down an enemy aircraft, according to the Navy’s records. Four years later, the ship shot down nine North Vietnamese jet fighters and helped rescue 17 U.S. pilots or air crew members.

In 1989, the cruiser went around the world again, stopping in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil and Barbados, among other places.

And in 1990, the Long Beach handled counternarcotics operations off Central America and Colombia and won a Coast Guard commendation for its work recovering cocaine.

In its last operation, in 1993, the warship was stationed in the Caribbean for more anti-drug work.

Frauenholz, now 75 and one of the dedicated Long Beach alumni who convene for reunions, said his time on the ship made a lasting mark.

In 1994, he rode along on one of the Long Beach’s last trips, as it was about to be taken out of commission. He escaped with a belaying pin — used to hold the cords of signal flags — as a souvenir.

Today, Frauenholz has a room in his Idaho home dedicated to the Long Beach. Above his desk is a picture of the ship, and on the desk sits a model of the cruiser that he built.

“We’re all old men now, of course,” Frauenholz said. “When you get old, you get nostalgic, and you look back. . . . There were more good days than bad by far.”

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