The Navy's oldest operational ship just turned 50. Here's why it's still on the frontline of crises and conflict

  • On November 14, 1970, the US Navy commissioned USS Blue Ridge into service.
  • 50 years later, the Blue Ridge is still in service and is still one of the Navy's most advanced ships.
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On November 14, USS Blue Ridge celebrated its 50th year in service, further solidifying its status as the Navy's oldest operational ship.

Commissioned on November 14, 1970, Blue Ridge is the lead ship of its class and is the flagship of the US 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan.

Blue Ridge is one of two amphibious command ships in the US Navy. The other, USS Mount Whitney, is Blue Ridge's sister ship and the flagship of the 6th Fleet in Europe.

While Blue Ridge is a half-century old, it is still one of the Navy's most technologically advanced ships.

A new type of command ship

Blue Ridge-class amphibious command ships arrived at an important time during the Cold War.

With the Vietnam War raging and war with the Soviet Union still a possibility, the Navy wanted a new class of command-and-control vessels that could coordinate all aspects of amphibious operations on a large scale. The vessels also needed to be fast enough to keep up with the rest of the fleet — a distinct problem with previous command ships.

The hulls were based on Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ships, and development and construction took almost seven years. Three were originally planned, but only two were completed.

The ships were massive — over 600 feet long with a displacement of up to 19,000 tons. They were originally armed with two twin Mark 33 guns and two Mark 25 missile launchers, but that was replaced by two Phalanx CIWS systems and several 25 mm Bushmaster cannons in the 1990s.

Blue Ridge-class vessels' true armament is their electronics and communications equipment. At the time of their commissioning, they carried some of the most sophisticated technology in the world. Their large, flat decks were designed to minimize interference with their numerous wires, antennas, and communication towers.

A rich history

After its commissioning at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Blue Ridge spent its first year in the waters of North and South America, before being sent to the Western Pacific in 1972.

When North Vietnam launched its Easter Offensive in early 1972, Blue Ridge was preparing for the Golden Dragon exercise. The drill was canceled, and Blue Ridge spent four months supporting operations in the Gulf of Tonkin.

While there, Blue Ridge was the command ship for the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade and helped support the last amphibious operations of the war during the Second Battle of Quảng Trị. The crew even fired their guns at targets ashore.

Blue Ridge spent 64 days at sea during the Easter Offensive, a record that held until 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic kept the ship from making the frequent port calls for which it's known.

Blue Ridge continued supporting operations in Vietnam and participated in training exercises in South Korea and Japan.

In 1975, during its third deployment, it played a key role in organizing the evacuation of Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind. Blue Ridge coordinated Task Force 76, a force of over 26 ships that evacuated almost 6,000 South Vietnamese refugees and US personnel with 80 helicopters.

Blue Ridge's communications equipment proved vital to the evacuations. "The air flow went perfectly. It was absolutely remarkable," one of the Marines who planned the airlift said of Blue Ridge's involvement.

Blue Ridge also took on refugees. Six South Vietnamese helicopters ditched alongside it after unloading their passengers, one crash-landed on the flight deck, and another plowed into the starboard side but only caused cosmetic damage.

It became the flagship of the 7th Fleet in 1979 and was forward deployed to Yokosuka Naval Base, its homeport ever since.

Between 1979 and 1984, Blue Ridge rescued 91 Vietnamese boat people, plucking them from the South China Sea. For nine and a half months between 1991 and 1992, it was the flagship for the commander of US Navy forces in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm.

'No better ship'

Blue Ridge has received numerous upgrades over the years, ensuring its suite of electronics and communications equipment is still some of the most advanced on any ship.

In addition to supporting Navy operations and training, Blue Ridge has also done good-will trips and humanitarian operations, including Operation Tomodachi, a US assistance operation for Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

In 2018, Blue Ridge completed a 19-month maintenance overhaul. It's now expected to serve until 2039.

"There is no better ship to support us as our flagship." Vice Adm. Bill Merz, commander of the 7th Fleet said on the ship's birthday. "Year after year, she has enabled operations of the largest forward fleet, while at the same time participating in enduring joint service and multi-national exercises and supporting disaster relief operations."

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