Ships bearing the name “Detroit” on behalf of the U.S. Navy began patrolling the world’s waters over two centuries ago and have played roles in many events that shaped history.
Including the latest iteration — which will be commissioned later this month — there have been six USS Detroit ships that have served the country in combat and peacetime. Their exploits started during the War of 1812, when the country boasted only 18 states.
During the 35-year-career of the previous ship named after the Motor City, the vessel played a supporting role in Vietnam, served in the first Gulf War as part of operations Desert Shield, Desert Sword and Desert Sabre, and bolstered efforts to combat pirates in the Arabian Gulf.
When the new, sleek USS Detroit heads for open waters later this year, it will enjoy the latest technology and weaponry available. It will also have much to live up to from its predecessors.
Like its namesake, vessels bearing Detroit’s name have not always been the flashiest ships at sea. But for the most part, they have all been fighters.
1st in lineage underachieved
The first U.S. ship to bear the Detroit name represents what may be one of the worst investments in Naval history — British naval history to be precise.
In the midst of the War of 1812, British and American forces traded control of Detroit following incursions into each others’ territory. At one point, following successful capture of the territory, Britain commissioned the construction of the HMS Detroit.
Built in Amherstburg, Ontario, the Detroit launched in August 1813. A relatively small design made the ship ideal for scouting and carrying dispatches. And roughly a month after the ceremony, the sloop-of-war was engaged with American vessels in the Battle of Lake Erie.
In the rush to control Lake Erie, both sides were sending ships of all sizes and stages of readiness into battle.
“She was 12-guns at the Battle of Lake Erie ... not a large ship for the most part,” said Mark Evans, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “It was a fierce battle. (The Americans) shot her to pieces and captured her from the British.
“I would say his majesty would have been a bit upset.”
When the smoke cleared, however, what was left of the Detroit was barely seaworthy. American ships towed her out of Lake Erie’s open waters and into the safety of Put-in-Bay.
The Detroit stayed there for the next 12 years until she was sold to a private interest.
“She just lay there in Lake Erie — rotting, quite frankly,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, it’s not the most stirring history.”
Built at: Maiden, Canada
Launch date: August 1813
Sold in: 1825
Hull material: Wood
Length: 132 feet
2nd saw Civil War action
The second official USS Detroit started out in 1862 also with a different name. Built at the Boston Navy Yard, the USS Canandaigua was a sloop-of-war named for the area of New York just south of Lake Ontario.
Launched in the midst of the Civil War, she was designed to help the Union choke off Confederate ports in what was appropriately called the Anaconda Plan. With a shallow draft, the Canandaigua could reach places its larger, heavier brethren could not.
“You had this combination of blockading Confederate ports from the sea and smaller ships sailing up rivers like the Mississippi and the Missouri ... sneaking into various ports,” Evans said. “Ships like the Canandaigua could pursue blockade runners into the narrow estuaries while the larger ones sat offshore to tangle with the heavier ships.”
Once the conflict ended in 1865, the United States began downsizing its Navy — going from a wartime high of 670 ships to roughly 50.
The Canandaigua was renamed the USS Detroit in 1869 and served the states for another six years until decommissioning.
USS Detroit (previously the USS Canandaigua)
Built at: Boston Navy Yard in Boston, Mass.
Launch date: 1862 (Renamed the USS Detroit in 1869)
Hull material: Wood
Length: 228 feet
3rd patrolled Latin America
In the 1880s and 1890s, downsizing gave way to a Naval build-up sparked by several factors. The “closing” of the nation’s frontier meant adventure might be easier to find on the seas.
“So now, where do we go?” Evans asked. “We had the American people wanting to embrace manifest destiny, as we called it, and rush out into other parts of the world.”
And in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783” — a widely read book that underscored the impact of having a superior Navy.
This was the stage when military vessels had switched from sails to steam, and wood to iron — the birth of the Steel Navy. From this atmosphere came the third USS Detroit, a cruiser built at Baltimore’s Columbian Iron Works and launched late in 1891.
Her earliest action came in Caribbean and Latin American waters. In countries with uprisings and conflict, the USS Detroit would often land troops, or bluejackets, in order to protect American interests and provide a show of force.
“In particular, you can take a look at Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic),” Evans said. “She helped to kind of settle things down there and restored order during some rioting and disturbances.”
Despite its success in those areas, the USS Detroit was a troubled vessel that served only 14 years.
“She was a hybrid design and couldn’t handle a lot of the wear and tear well,” Evans said. “She was out there at sea, day after day, being pounded by the elements. She just didn’t hold up.
“By 1910, the Navy struck the ship. She was considered uninhabitable by that point.”
USS Detroit (C-10)
Built at: Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore, Md.
Launch date: Oct. 28, 1891
Decommissioned: Aug. 1, 1905
Hull material: Steel
Length: 269 feet 6 inches
4th in Pearl Harbor attack
A new light cruiser, the fourth USS Detroit emerged from the Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts in 1922 — four years too late for World War I, but well-timed to play a role in the follow-up. Like its predecessor, the ship spent its earliest years in Latin American waters, as well as in the Atlantic.
She was moored at Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island on Dec. 7, 1941, when fighters and bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy executed their infamous attack. The Detroit floated between the USS Utah and the USS Raleigh.
A pair of torpedoes struck the Utah, sinking it. Aboard the Detroit, crew members reported a torpedo passed by its own stern — missing by just 30 yards.
With many sailors ashore on leave, the Detroit’s remaining crew faced the task of getting their ship into the fight.
“Getting up to steam was huge to begin with with the reduced crew,” Evans said. “But she got up to steam and got underway with guns blazing. It was pretty dramatic.”
Gunners reported downing a pair of Japanese aircraft, but the reports were not officially confirmed. The Detroit’s after-action report showed the ship fired 10,000 .50-caliber rounds in the battle.
Months later, the USS Detroit would play a small role on a secret mission. With Japanese forces set to overrun islands in the Philippines, the submarine USS Trout secretly slipped into the waters near Corregidor and transported out gold bullion from the city, keeping it out of the enemy’s hands.
The final leg of the bouillon’s journey into American hands came when the Trout transferred its cargo to the USS Detroit, which carried it to port in San Francisco.
Then in September 1945, she was anchored in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered.
USS Detroit (CL-8)
Type: Light Cruiser
Built at: Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass.
Launch date: June 29, 1922
Decommissioned: Jan. 11, 1946
Hull material: Steel
Length: 555 feet, 6 inches
5th spanned the globe
In the summer of 1969, the fifth iteration of the USS Detroit emerged from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington — a fast combat support ship destined for a 35-year career. That career would carry her into a variety of situations around the globe.
While not a direct combatant, she served as a support ship in the Vietnam War. At a time when it appeared North Vietnamese would overrun South Vietnamese forces in 1972, more naval firepower was called the region.
To help the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga reach the area quickly, the Detroit was dispatched to meet it for a resupply at sea.
That allowed the Saratoga to reach Vietnam by taking the unusual route of passing south of the African continent.
The fifth USS Detroit also played a combat support role during the early 1990s in the Persian Gulf during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
“After 9/11, she continually deployed in that region,” Evans said.
“She served in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean hunting traffickers — everything from al-Qaida to pirates.”
USS Detroit (AOE-4)
Type: Fast Combat Support Ship
Built at: Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash.
Launch date: June 21, 1969
Decommissioned: Feb. 17, 2005
Hull material: Steel
Length: 796 feet
6th about to start duty
The latest USS Detroit is a new class of Navy vessel, the littoral combat ship (LCS). It is designed to operate in shallow waters — areas where larger members of the U.S. fleet cannot go.
The vessel’s 13.5-foot draft makes close-to-shore operation possible, while her water jet propulsion allows for a level of speed and maneuverability no other surface combat ship has. She can do a complete turn within her own 389-foot length.
A Freedom variant of the LCS class, USS Detroit was built at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisc., and christened two years ago. Its design also stresses adaptability, with 40 percent of the ship’s onboard space reconfigurable to meet the changing needs of new missions.
Detroit is preparing to welcome the ship and crew this week for several days of events leading up to a commissioning ceremony on Oct. 22. Prior to that date, it will be moored along the Riverwalk in Detroit near the Renaissance Center.
USS Detroit (LCS-7)
Type: Littoral Combat Ship
Built at: Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisc.
Launch date: Oct. 18, 2014
Hull material: Steel
Length: 389 feet