The USS Belknap, flagship of the 6th Fleet and co-host of next weekend's U.S.-Soviet summit, is a guided-missile cruiser whose history is marred by a 1975 accident that could have led to nuclear disaster.
On the 12th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, the Belknap collided with the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy during night flight operations in the Mediterranean 70 miles east of Sicily.Eight sailors were killed and 48 injured in the collision and resulting fire that severely damaged the Belknap, first commissioned in 1964.
It was not disclosed until this year, however, that the military's highest nuclear alert was issued during the accident, when it was feared fires aboard the Belknap might reach the ship's nuclear warheads.
"It was a pretty hairy scene when I sent that message," retired Adm. Eugene Carroll told United Press International.
Carroll, aboard the Kennedy, sent a "Broken Arrow" alert, the military's most serious category of nuclear weapons accident, to the Pentagon on the night of Nov. 22, 1975, when he saw what he believed might be the end of the Belknap.
"It looked terrible," he said. "It looked like the ship might sink. There were fires, and ordnance going off. There was always the direct possibility of the warheads being engulfed in fires, because that's all I could see from the Kennedy."
The Greenpeace environmental organization, which first disclosed in May that Carroll sent the alert, said the fire came to within 40 feet of the nuclear warheads. That could not be independently confirmed.
The Navy later downgraded the accident to an "incident." Carroll said this was done because "we did not have a weapon directly damaged or endangered in the immediate physical sense."
As a result of the accident, the Belknap had to be pulled out of operation to undergo extensive repairs and modernization at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Five years later, in May 1980, the Belknap - refitted with the latest weapons, a high-tech communications and control center and other modifications - returned to service with the U.S. 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since early 1987 it has been the flagship of the commander of the 6th Fleet, Adm. James D. Williams.
It is the second warship to bear the name Belknap. The first USS Belknap was a destroyer commissioned in 1919 and named in honor of Adm. George E. Belknap, credited with equipping ships for mine-laying in the North Sea in World War I. Today's Belknap is named in honor of George E. and his son, Rear Adm. Reginald R. Belknap.