US Navy (Cold War) 1945-1960

In 1945, The United States became the first naval power in the world. Engaged in 1941 alongside the British Empire, its shipyards would deliver more ships, civil and military types alike in history. More than 2700 liberty ships standard freighters, about 100 aircraft carriers, more than 250 destroyers, 350 escort destroyers, 10 battleships (plus the complete reconstruction of many others), more than 50 cruisers, 226 submersibles. A steamroller that allowed to withstand the shock of the battle of the Atlantic and crush the Imperial Japanese Navy, starting from a crippled fleet and three aircraft carriers, miraculously preserved. However, in 1947, the geopolitical balance rocked: The danger was now facing fromp the east. The world became bipolar and in the Western camp, NATO mustered a considerable naval force, capable of dealing with any confrontation against the USSR. Because of its immense fleet developed in 1942-46, the US Navy retained its conventional fleet until 1960, but evolved to the missile era and moreover its double nuclear revolution, both as means of propulsion or as a offensive vector.

USS Long beach and Bainbridge

Abbreviations for submarines:
– SNA: nuclear attack submarine
– SA: Submarine, Attack (diesels-electric)
– SSBN: Sub-Surface Ballistic Nuclear
– SPQ: Submarine radar picket (diesels-electric or nuclear)

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (1900-1986), was the main architect of nuclear propulsion within the US navy. He ordered the construction of the USS Nautilus and in general directed the development of naval nuclear propulsion and operations for three decades as director of Naval Reactors in the US Navy. His very high safety standards greatly contributed to have no fatalities or major accident, despite two major losses (see later). He was long-term Engineering Duty Officer, until 1982 and his replacement by Kinnaird R. McKee, so his commitment encompassed most of the cold war.

The US Navy after 1945

The US navy of 1960 is a still very conventional force, composed chiefly of ships from the great series of the last war. A material comfort that did not had the Soviet Union. But its nuclear advance placed the US at the forefront of technological avant-garde in the world. Opposite, the USSR will try to catch up by taking many shortcuts, creating many accidents in the process, but also undeniable successes like the November and Alfa class.

Aircraft carriers

The main assets of the US Navy at the end of ww2 were its aircraft carriers. This new capital ship was the centerpiece of a composite force, a tool to intervene anywhere in the world in strenght to protect national interests, and those of is allies. The Royal Navy was still impressive in 1945 but in the face of a post-war drastic budget cuts, it was quickly downgraded to the level of the USSR. The aircraft carrier was to the US Navy what was the Dreadnought to the Royal Navy at the beginning of the century. At the center of the carrier group, the “Task Force”, a worldwide projection of force, subsequently imposed surface ships to act as fleet escort, to protect aircraft carriers from any threats from the air, sea and underwater. It was also felt that on-board aviation was the only protection such a vessel needed, and on-board armaments were deleted gradually in the 1960s.

In 1945, the US Navy had more than 100 aircraft carriers. Of this total, about three-quarters were light escort vessels, which were not well suited to receiving jets. In fact, there were 46 Casablanca, 10 Bogue, 4 Sangamon, 2 Long Island, and 15 Commencement Bay enlisted. Three more of these were under construction. The retirement will be fast for some (especially the purpose-built Casablanca, or “Jeep Carriers” in 1947-48). However, the rest will still be used in Korea where piston aircraft could operate and in addition helicopters that can perform short take-offs, and so in 1960 there were still 27 Casablanca, 19 Commencement Bay, 4 Sangamon, and 10 Bogue in service. By the year 1960, half of these were dropped from the lists, the rest would follow in 1970, and only a handful were still operational during the last years of the Vietnam War. They operated helicopters and piston aircraft such as the versatile Douglas Skyraider.

The fleet aircraft carriers on the other side, were partly newer and large enough for jet operations with little modifications like the Essex class, of which 19 were in service in 1945, five more in completion. The last one, USS Oriskany, would be lauched in 1950, but served as a prototype for the new extended flight deck, being recommissioned in 1954, while all these excellent fast aircraft carriers were rebuilt according to two successive administrative standards, SBC24A and SBC24C. In 1960 there were 24 in service. They served in Korea, some in Vietnam, and were reformed between 1966 and 1980. Quite an achievement for ships designed in 1941. The last were in reserve until 1990. In addition to these ships that formed the backbone of the fleet, there were three great Midway, perfectly adapted to the jets from the beginning. The first was operational in September 1945 at the time of the Japanese surrender, the other two (USS Franklin D Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea) were operational in October 1945 and October 1947 respectively. They were modernized and still in active service in 1960, and two in 1990.

In addition to these large ships, the US Navy had 8 Independence, fast fleet carriers based on cruisers, yet too small to operate jets. Two were sold (1953 and 1967), the others were put in reserve and there were only two units left in 1960. The two Saipan (1946-47), built on the same principle but on larger hulls were a little larger and remained in service the years 1975-77 after the two main campaigns of the US Navy (Korea and Viet-nâm). Then there were the veterans: In 1945, the US Navy still had three heroic monument like ships: The USS Enterprise (1936) of Yorktown class, and only survivor of her classes, the USS Ranger (1933), and the USS Saratoga (1925). If the last two were scrapped quickly because no longer meeting the standards of modern naval aviation, the USS Enterprise or “Big E”, decorated many times remained in reserve until 1958, and the one that took her name was the first aircraft carrier in the world (CV65) with nuclear propulsion.

The only modern aircraft carriers on coldwar designs were the four Forrestal (1954-58). Much larger than the Midway, they ushered in a new generation whose foundations were taken over by the current Kitty Hawk, Enterprise and Nimitz. A wing aircraft carrier project was specifically developed from 1945 onwards to deploy strategic bomber aircraft: The USS United States. This design was, however, retrograde in some respects (such as generous defensive artillery and absence of island), and its narrow flight deck was not fit for a multipurpose fleet. In addition, its hangar housed only the escort fighters, the bombers themselves being way too cumbersome and had to land on the carrier to be stoockpiled on the deck just like for the USS Hornet daring raid of early 1942. One of the interesting innovation was four powerful hydraulic-powered catapults, which design was recalled for successor carriers. Started at Newport News in 1949, this ship was cancelled, following a report from the Air Force specifying the prohibitive cost of the program and its uselessness in the development of an intercontinental strategic aviation.


In 1960 no more battleships were on the inventories. In 1945, there were still surviving “veterans” of Pearl Harbor, the Wyoming, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Idaho, all of which would be disarmed and put into reserve in 1948. The most “recent” Tennesse and the three Maryland class will still serve until 1959. The California was decommissioned in 1960 and the West Virginia in 1961. More recent, the two North Carolina (1940) were also removed from the lists in 1961, as the four South Dakota (1941-42), between 1962 and 1965. By 1948 they had been placed in pre-reserve. There remained only the four huge Iowa (1943-44), put in reserve despite all their merits, in 1948, then quickly returned to active service to participate in the operations of the Korean War. In 1958 all four were back in reserve. However, the USS New Jersey participated in coastal bombing during the Vietnam War (1967-69). No one thought they would ever come out of their reserve again. And yet…


The US navy had in 1945 large stocks of cruisers. The oldest dated back to the 1920s, the Omaha class, all inactivated in 1946-47. The two Pensacola first heavy cruisers, were sunk in 1948 in an atomic test. The 3 survivors of the Northampton class were disarmed, one broken up in 1948 and the other two in 1960. USS Portland followed in 1959, the 4 New Orleans in 1959, 60 and 61. From the Brooklyn class ships, only the Savannah and Honolulu survived, in reserve until 1960. The other 6 were sold to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. USS Wichita, the Baltimore prototype, was broken up in 1959. The Atlanta-class light cruisers (1941-46) were broken up from 1960 to 1966. There were still nine in reserve inventory at that time.

Cleveland: The many Clevelands, some of which were completed in 1946, were all in service in 1960. This represented a force of twenty-eight conventional units armed with twelve 152 mm quick-firing guns. Six were in reserve and will be disarmed in 1960, the others in the 1960s and the last in 1970-73. Some survived until 1976 as the USS Little Rock, preserved as a floating museum, The USS Providence and Oklahoma city being broken up last in 1978 and 1979. the latter, as well as three others, had been rebuilt and converted into missile cruisers.

Baltimore: The 18 Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, four of which entered service in 1946, were still enlisted in 1960. Some were converted into missile cruisers and survived until 1980. These rebuilt ships were the USS Boston and Camberra. Three others were completely rebuilt also in 1960-62: the Albany class whereas unmodified conventional ships stille active in 1960 were therefore still fourteen, radar and electronics modernized, and soon joined the reserve.

The Last conventional US Navy cruisers: Des Moines class
The ultmate conventional cruisers were those of the Des Moines class (3 ships, of which 2 in reserve of active in 1980), the two Worcester class (enlisted in 1970-72). The first were completed in 1948 and 49 and the second in 1948. They participated in the operations of the Korean War and Vietnam. The 3 battlecruisers of the Alaska class (1943-45) were still extant in 1960. They were broken up the following year. They had little to do with new principles of naval strategy of the cold war period.

Missile Cruise Reconversions: Six Cleveland class cruisers have been transformed into classic hybrids with rear launchers. That reconstruction was so complete that these ships are grouped in a Galveston class, transformed in 1957-59 and put back into service in 1958-60. Before them, two of the Boston class, larger, had been also transformed in this way, returned into service in 1955 and 1956 with the first missile ramps in the world. The third wave of reconstruction was total: The three Albany, also of the Boston class have seen their artillery entirely removed. These are the first true American missile cruisers. However, they did not appear on the lists in 1960, since they were in full reconstruction on that date. They will only be operational in 1962-64. They tried their metal during the Viet-Nam and the last to leave service was the USS Albany, in 1985.

USS Albany 1989


World War II mass construction program gave the US Navy an unsurpassed “herd of destroyers” in history: The Benson/Gleaves (96 ships) added to the famous Fletcher (175), Sumner (58), and Gearing (104). In 1945 they were added to more than 120 older units, ranging from the old “four pipers” of 1917-19, promptly put out of service for the last few, and the 8 classes dating back to the 1930s. That was a total of about 520 destroyers, a force able to cope with any submarine warfare as well asescort all aircraft carriers. In 1960, most were still in service.

Those of the Benson class still represented sixty ships, in reserve but modernized, and many having been transferred and resold. The one hundred and twenty-six Fletcher that had not been resold will be sold shortly after 1960 and the last ones deactivated in 1970-75. They were converted as DDEs, ASW escorts. The Sumner and especially the Gearing, more modern, will have a more interesting destiny: The 53 survivor of the Sumner class were in active service in 1960, while 31 modified FRAM II modernied resumed service until the late 70s. The Gearing were converted to the FRAM I standard in 1958, intended to extend their service of eight years. 77 ships were thus transformed in this way. They had all been DDR (escort) standard shortly before, meny went directly to FRAM II modernization. In 1960 this conversion was still in progress, and during the 1970s, many were sold to friendly countries. The latter still wore the star-spangled banner in 1980 as training and reserve ships.

Modern Destroyers Soon after the release of the last of the Gearing class began to consider a new destroyer class adapted to the progress of electronics and new missions of Task Force escort. The small size of the destroyers being not very compatible with missile carriers and sensors batteries, heavy guide systems had their design reworked several times before the Forrest Sherman left. These 18 ships were built from 1955 to 1958, and modernized. They were all removed from service before 1990. The radically new Charles F. Adams class were under construction in 1960, so none was in service at that time. Beside the Forrest Sherman, their economic version, the large carriers fleet escorts of the Mitscher class, reached 4850 tons in displacement. The class comprised of four ships, built in 1952. They will evolve later into the Farragut class, under construction by 1960.

USS Forrest Sherman, 1959
USS Forrest Sherman, 1959


In 1945, the US Navy Ordnance Bureau registers more than 360 escort ships in service, survivors of the wartime mass of ships designed to counter the Third Reich rampaging U-Boats. These were the GMT, TE, TEV, WGT, DET and FMR escort destroyers. In 1960, were extant those not been transferred yet. Many will remain so until 1972. In service in 1960: -93 TE class units, 99 TEV / WGT, and 103 DET / FMR. They will be withdrawn from service between 1966 and 1972. Some will benefit from modernization for ASM, USS Vammen (TE) and USS Tweedy and Lewis (WGT), and the rest will be upgraded to DEC or DER (37). ships), modernized with partial reconstruction, improved ASM control means, electronic equipment. Finally the patrol frigates Tacoma class (78 ships in 1945) were transferred to the friendly countries for the most part and the last disabled in 1947-53. The first modern frigates built will be those of the Dealey class (1953), with 13 units, the last of which entered service in 1958. They constituted an evolution of the ED of 1944-45. the next Claud Jones class (4 units) was being completed in 1960.


Submarines With more than 175 submarines of the Gato class (Gato/Tench/Balao) in service in 1948, the US Navy had a potential all the more apt to counterbalance the Soviet fleet that these were also Oceanic long-range, spacious enough to lend itself easily to conversion (the famous “Guppy”). Of the total of 159 units not transferred to friendly countries, in 1960 there were 8 Guppy I, 33 Guppy II and 7 Guppy III, the ultimate evolution of this modernization. Many Guppy III have been Guppy II. They were transferred or deleted from the lists in the 1970s. The other 110 were called “Fleet snorkels”. Many served as training ships, others were inactive. (See Guppy IA, Guppy II and IIA, and Guppy III conversions.) Others were converted to tanker cargo ships, troop transports, tanker tankers, radar pickets (“Migraine”, see below), and in long-range missile firing platforms.

The first modern diesel submarines in the fleet will be the Barracuda class (1951), three attack submarines that served as “prototypes” for testing detection innovations. They were submarine hunters destined for mass production, to counter Soviet “Whiskey”. However they were only extrapolations of Gato, smaller and more economical, but far from the performance of U-Boote type XXI. The next class of Tang (1951) used against the technologies used on type XXI Germans (a captured copy was studied by US Navy since 1946). These 6 units survived beyond the 80s, used by Italy or Turkey. The Darter (1956) was a prototype, as were the two small Mackerel (1953), or the tiny X-1 (1955), all armed, and civilian submarines intended to test hull forms, such as the Albacore (1953) and the Dolphin (1956). The first was intended to test exceptional speeds under water (33 knots and more tests, record held until the appearance of the “Alfa” soviet), and very deep diving for the second. The last “classic” submarines, the 3 SA Barbel class, will be launched in 1958 and completed in 1959.

The first modern diesel submarines in the fleet will be the Barracuda class (1951), three attack submarines that served as “prototypes” for testing detection innovations. They were submarine hunters destined for mass production, to counter Soviet “Whiskey”. However they were only extrapolations of the Gato serie, smaller and more economical, but far from the performance of U-Boote type XXI. The next Tang class (1951) used against the technologies used on type XXI Germans (a captured copy was studied by US Navy since 1946). These 6 units survived beyond the 80s, used by Italy or Turkey. The USS Darter (1956) was a prototype, as were the two small Mackerel (1953), or the tiny X-1 (1955), all armed, and civilian submarines intended to test hull forms, such as the Albacore (1953) and the Dolphin (1956). The first was intended to test exceptional speeds under water (33 knots and more tests, record held until the appearance of the “Alfa” soviet), and very deep diving for the second. The last “classic” submarines, the 3 SA Barbel class, will be launched in 1958 and completed in 1959.

USS Nautilus
USS Nautilus 1954, first nuclear submarine

But the revolution came in 1954 with the launch of Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine. Widely used in testing, it proved the reliability of the system and was followed by the USS Seawolf, second SSN in 1955. The US Navy then took a step ahead by answering to the “November” class, quite unreliabe. The first series of SSNs dated from 1957-58: These were the four Skate, followed by six Skipjack. But the latter came into service in 1960-61 and only the USS Skipjack was on the lists in 1960.

The nuclear strategy called for ballistic missile, and studies for submarines were launched soon. In 1954 the USS Grayback, a conventional-powered attack carrying two ramps for four4 Regulus-1 rockets was unveiled. It was followed by the USS Growler (1957) and USS Halibut (1959, completed in January 1960), the first US Navy SSBN. The first class of modern SSBN, the USS George Washington, will be completed during 1960-61. She had been preceded by two fleet-snorkel conversions to German V-1 missiles, USS Cusk and Carbonero, followed by USS Barbero and USS Tunny, Guppies converted to Regulus rockets.

Finally, the US Navy developed the idea of underwater radar poles. She tried it with “Gato” converted, 10 in all, under the program code name of “Migraine”, in three phases. They all returned to normal service in 1959. They built on this test base two SAs of this type, the Sailfish class (1955), followed by the SNA USS Triton in 1958, a very large boomer (136 meters and 7700 tons).

USS Greenfish
USS Greenfish, converted in a GUPPY III (1960)


In 1945, the fleet still had 10 minesweepers in service (class Admirable), but 42 others will be reactivated during the Korean War and were in service by 1960. The coastal minesweepers of the YMS lass were 47 ships active in 1960. A dozen old PC-style patrollers were also put out of the lists. Five AGC-type command ships were still in service in 1960, and served in Viet-Nam. Eventually the huge fleet of landing ships used during the Pacific campaign were scrapped after the Korean War, but some remained on the lists: A hundred LSTss, a hundred LSMs, 80 MRLs, 100 LSSL Fire Support, 100 LSIL, 120 LSU, 30 Assault ships, 57 “Victory”, 70 “C3”, all in reserve.

New constructions included the USS Northampton (1951), Atlantic fleet command vessel, 8 Thomaston-class assault ships (LSD) (1954), the first to have a flying deck and a well deck. Helicopter carriers of the County class (1957) were seven ships, Three Tulare-class assault ships (1953), added to the USS carronade (1953), an old LST converted into a specialized fire support ship. 4 MTBs were also built to digest the lessons of the Second World War in 1950-51 (PT809 class). The production of light landing ships from the last war was to resume in 1954, and 143 LCUs were built up to 1957 and were in service in 1960, as well as several hundred LCMs from 1949 onwards. In 1967, 1552 LCVP (infantry only) were also produced until 1966, and a hundred LCPL in service in 1960. 62 mineswpeers of the Agile class were also built between 1952 and 1956, 3 of the Ability class (1956) and many others for the Allied fleets. 24 Adjutant class draggers, very much inspired by the YMS of the war, will also be commissioned in the 1950s, as well as two USS Cove, of flotilla dredgers (1958) and a minesweeper, USS Bittern (1956).

In 1960, key date since it signalled the disappearance of the last conventional ship in the US Navy and the appearance of the first missiles launchers and nuclear propulsion, was also that of a certain “maturity” of the nuclear deterrent, finding in SSBNs their main carrier. Virtually all ships launched in 1960 are in service thirty years later. The further development of the US Navy is the fruit of a long “conversation” of naval policies with the Soviet navy in a cold war and planetary scale. The US Navy made use of a considerable budget, always counting on mass construction to keep up with potental threats by reducing costs. The names of these same ships reflected besides offcers of the American naval history, that of senators who pressed for the vote of ambitious naval laws, the Congress always holding the strings of the taxpayer’s purse…

1960 tonnage:

Aircraft Carriers: 19
Cruisers 19
Destroyers 98
Submarines 400
Various 90 + 1296 + 832

Aircraft Carriers: SBC27A Essex, SBC27C Midway, Saipan Forrestal
Battleships: Iowa class (4)
Cruisers: Boston,, Cleveland Albany, Worcester, Des Moines
Destroyers: Fletcher DDE, Gearing DDE, Gearing FRAM I Sumner FRAM II, Forrest Sherman, Mitscher, Norfolk
Frigates: DER Dealey, Claud Jones
Submarines: SA Cl. GUPPY, SPQ Cl. Migraine, SA Cl. Barracuda, SA Cl. Tang, SA Cl. Darter, SA X1, SNA Nautilus, SNA Seawolf, SA Albacore SNLE Grayback, SNLE Growler, SNLE Halibut, SNA Cl. Skate, SA Cl. Barbel, SA Cl. Sailfish, SPQ Triton
Various: Northampton VLT cl., PT812 VLT, cl. Opsrey DMO cl. Agile, DMC cl. Adjutant, DMP cl. Cove, DML cl. MSB, DML cl. MSL, CM Uss Bittern
Amphibious: NA cl. Thomaston, CDC cl. County, LCU, LCDC, LCM, NAP, Carronade