(Tribune News Service) — “USS” before a ship’s name stands for “United States Ship,” and only U.S. Navy ships can carry that designation.
Currently, the navy has one ship in the fleet named for Fort Worth. The USS Fort Worth, part of the Freedom class of ships, recently made headlines because the Navy wanted to scrap it. The Fort Worth Pride is only 10 years old and should be in her prime for a warship. But current naval doctrine considers it obsolete. The Freedom-class warships are littoral combat ships (LCS), intended to operate in coastal waters interdicting pirates and other second-class enemies, but the LCS class is no match for larger warships. heavily armed she might encounter, so the Navy is ready to throw it away.
This is not the first time the Navy has abandoned Fort Worth. The city was proud as a peacock in 2012 when the USS Fort Worth was commissioned. This was directly attributable to the influence of longtime U.S. Representative Kay Granger, aided by a letter-writing campaign to Congress. It didn’t hurt that Fort Worth also has a strong military heritage dating back to its 19th century origins. The result was that the Fort Worth was proclaimed the first Navy ship to bear the city’s name, which is only half true.
By tradition, US warships are appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, guided by long-established criteria. Most of the public’s attention is focused on the capital ships, the largest and most powerful in the fleet. For example, modern aircraft carriers are named after “great Americans”, such as presidents and combat admirals. In the early 20th century, the practice was to name battlecruisers for cities.
The battlecruiser was a class of warship slightly inferior to the battleship in terms of armor and armament, but faster, allowing it to outrun anything it could not defeat. Battlecruisers had the added attraction of being cheaper to build than the battleships of the world’s navies while still being superior to old-style armored cruisers. At the start of World War I, the British and Germans led the world in the number of battlecruisers in their fleets.
The United States Navy had no battlecruisers when it entered the war in 1917 and did not build any during the war. However, the Naval Act of 1916 authorized six ships of this class to bear the name of the first ship of this class, the Lexington. They were to be longer and less heavily armed than any battleship on the drawing board but at 34 knots, much faster. Navy plans called for the construction of six battlecruisers, all at the same time but in four different shipyards. The potential enemy the USN had in mind was the Japanese Navy, which at the time was being built to make it the second largest fleet in the world after the British. The United States feared Japanese superiority in battlecruisers, which could threaten American sea lanes and territories in the Pacific. The USN had no battlecruisers against the Japanese four and, more worryingly, the Japanese had eight more under construction.
Despite Congressional concerns about the cost of the new ships in post-war dollars, news of their construction was greeted with joy in the cities and states that would be the beneficiaries of the naming process.
One of the six ships was designated “City of Fort Worth”. When the news broke, the city made big plans to celebrate the launch, at least two years from now. The government asked Marion Sansom, a Fort Worth rancher and banker and member of the Wilson administration (War Finance Corp.), to appoint a “sponsor” for the ship, another tradition. He enlisted Anne Burnett, granddaughter of his former rancher pal, Burk Burnett, who at the time was attending school in Washington, DC.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels chose Fort Worth over many other possible cities because of his political influence in Washington and because he had generously “oversubscribed” the fourth Liberty Loan campaign, chaired in County Tarrant by Marion Sansom. Anne’s father, Tom Burnett, and grandfather Burk both said she would be happy to represent Fort Worth as the ship’s sponsor, an honor that included christening the new ship with a bottle of champagne when it was launched.
Even then, it was generally unknown that this was the second time Fort Worth had been recognized with a ship’s name during the war. In 1917, a proposal was made to name a Merchant Navy ship for Fort Worth. Only a month later, the choice of a ship bearing the name Fort Worth was transformed into a battlecruiser, the highest recognition a city could receive for a warship, somewhat ironic since the plan of nearest water to the city was Lake Worth.
The six keels were laid in 1920 and work was well advanced by March 1922 when construction halted, a result of the Washington Naval Treaty agreements between the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. This landmark treaty placed limits on the size of the signatories’ navies and halted the ongoing construction of new battleships and battlecruisers. The two American battlecruisers at the most advanced stage of construction were converted into aircraft carriers, the USS Lexington and the USS Saratoga, which became famous during World War II. The city’s other ships and their names have been relegated to a footnote in naval history.
Thus ended the sad story of the first USN ship destined to bear our city’s name. It took another 93 years to accomplish, but now the Fort Worth name is proudly worn in major ports around the world.
Yet plans to decommission USS Fort Worth may have only been delayed a few years, not cancelled. These plans represent a double slap in the face for the city since the Fort Worth builder was Lockheed Martin, the same company that builds the F-35 here in Fort Worth.
There is a greater irony in the story. In 1922, a ship named after our city fell victim to an international policy that kept it off the drawing board. Exactly 100 years later, the Navy decides that littoral combat ships like the USS Fort Worth no longer serve its strategic doctrine and plans to mothball them. Maybe Fort Worth should build its own navy? Wait, it did once! This is the subject of a future story.
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