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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How to Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier: Smash Into a Sandbar?

Following the USS Enterprise’s 10th WESTPAC deployment in the early 1980s, the 90,000-ton nuclear-powered carrier ran aground on a sandbar in the San Francisco Bay.

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, right, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) transit back to their homeport of Norfolk, Va. Enterprise, Porter and Vicksburg are returning from a deployment to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, where the ship conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Atherton/Released).
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, right, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) transit back to their homeport of Norfolk, Va. Enterprise, Porter and Vicksburg are returning from a deployment to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, where the ship conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Atherton/Released).

One of the most momentous occasions for U.S. Navy families is the homecoming of a vessel. Sailors finally return from deployments out at sea that sometimes last months, and family members and friends wait for their arrival.

The ship’s crew sport their sharpest uniforms as they eagerly await their return to land.

In 1983, just such a moment was jarringly interrupted when the USS Enterprise ran aground a mere 1,000 yards out from the shoreline. In a photograph released by the Naval Institute, the massive carrier tilts slightly to its side, with its crew positioned on the deck.

Roughly 3,000 friends and family members could see the incoming vessel from the pier, yet their eight month-long separation from their loved ones would be frustratingly lengthened by several hours.

What Happened?

Following the USS Enterprise’s 10th WESTPAC deployment in the early 1980s, the 90,000-ton nuclear-powered carrier ran aground on a sandbar in San Francisco Bay.

The vessel missed the edge of a ship channel 400 yards wide while approaching port in cloudy, windy weather.

It reportedly took nine military and civilian tug boats to effectively rock the Enterprise off a sandbar by the later afternoon. Around an hour and a half later, the USS Enterprise finally docked at Alameda.

According to UPI, “An official of the civilian San Francisco Bar Pilots Association said a civilian pilot had been in charge of steering the ship as it sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge but had turned over command to a Navy pilot before the Enterprise went aground.” Following the incident, divers spent nearly 400 man-hours underwater to inspect any potential damage. 

The Aftermath

The grounding was obviously embarrassing, and details immediately emerged about what caused it. As detailed by Task and Purpose, the ship’s captain, Robert Leuscher, experienced a challenging cruise.

“The navigator alerted him to the proximity of Cortes Bank and plotted a course correction. At that time Captain Leuschner was distracted by what turned out to be a false report of a gunman below decks. During the precious moments when communications and awareness were tied up, no one noticed the carrier’s approach to the bank.” Leuschner was later relieved from duty after it was confirmed that the grounding caused $17 million in damage.

The Original USS Enterprise and Its Namesake

As the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Enterprise has a legendary connotation. The vessel’s predecessor, the USS Enterprise (CV-6), was the sixth aircraft carrier to enter service with the U.S. Navy, in 1936.

It was one of three carriers, along with USS Saratoga and USS Ranger, commissioned prior to the war. According to experts, that USS Enterprise, dubbed “The Big E,” was declared sunk by the Japanese government on several occasions during the war. The carrier’s survival prompted the nickname “The Grey Ghost.”

The carrier’s successor was also given the nickname “The Big E.” At over 1,000 feet long, the Enterprise is the longest naval vessel ever built. 

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Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

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