Operation Sea Orbit

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USS Enterprise, USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge shortly before the start of Operation Sea Orbit in the Mediterranean Sea

Operation Sea Orbit marks the first circumnavigation of the world by a group of ships powered exclusively by nuclear energy . It took place in 1964 and was the first United States Navy ships to orbit the world since the Great White Fleet from 1907.


The three units that took part in Operation Sea Orbit were the first three nuclear-powered surface ships in the world to form the first purely nuclear-powered combat group. It got the name Nuclear Task Force One (German " Nuclear Task Force One "). The ships were the:


The Nuclear Task Force One began its world circling on 31 July 1964 in Gibraltar . From the Mediterranean she drove through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic .

From there she drove south along the African west coast, making so-called underway visits to Dakar ( Senegal ) on August 3, Freetown ( Sierra Leone ) and Monrovia ( Liberia ) on August 4 and Abidjan ( Ivory Coast ) on August 5 performed. Local dignitaries, including ministers and high-ranking military officials, were flown onto the Enterprise and were given the opportunity to take part in a tour while the ships continued. The main purpose of these visits was to impress local governments and show them the strength of the US Navy.

On August 10th, the group circled Cape Agulhas and entered the Indian Ocean . At the Cape of Good Hope , Nuclear Task Force One met with the South African destroyer Simon van der Stel and the frigate President Steyn . After 19 gun salutes , Admiral Strean visited the Simon van der Stel , flagship of the South African Chief of Staff of the Navy. Meanwhile there was an air show of the American carrier aircraft.

There she drove north along the east coast of Africa, stopped outside Kenya on August 15 , where another underway visit took place. Here the ministers experienced another flight show by the CVW-6 . In addition, visitors were reportedly very impressed with the process of loading anti-aircraft missiles aboard Long Beach and Bainbridge , which drove alongside.

The XO on the Bainbridge bridge , with the
Enterprise in the background

After the flying visit to Kenya, the group drove to Asia for the first courtesy visit to the port of Karachi in Pakistan , which they reached on August 20. Due to bad weather conditions, however, the Enterprise and Long Beach could not enter the port and anchored several miles outside, only the smallest ship of the group, the Bainbridge , was directly at the pier in Karachi. The fleet left Karachi on August 22nd, with the Enterprise launching a total of 33 fighters, which carried out another air show over the city and the airport of Mauripur .

After leaving the port, the fleet steamed down the Indian coast and crossed the Indian Ocean towards Australia . Here she met the fleet around the HMS Victorious (R38) of the British Royal Navy , with which she carried out exercises. In addition, on August 28, Enterprise aircraft intercepted a Tu-16 Badger , which was supposed to be carrying out electronic reconnaissance on behalf of Indonesia .

On August 31, the fleet reached Australia and carried out another underway visit in Fremantle , with 24 people, including the Mayor of Perth , touring the Enterprise . In addition, 24 planes flew over a cheering crowd on the beaches of Fremantle and Perth. Then the fleet split up: The Long Beach visited Melbourne and the Bainbridge entered the port of Fremantle. The Enterprise put in another berth in Sydney Harbor . HMAS Derwent (F.22) , commanded by Captain RC Swan, served the carrier as escort . The arrival in the port was observed by an estimated 100,000 Australians, around 200 boats followed the Big E during the transfer into the port basin. A total of 9,316 Australians visited the Enterprise during the visit. A kangaroo , a gift from the Sydney Zoo to the Norfolk Zoo , has been a guest on board since then . An air show over the capital Canberra was prevented by bad weather, instead, among other things, the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge was flown over.

The next port visit - here again together - took place on September 8th and 9th in Wellington , New Zealand . Here, too, the residents of New Zealand had the opportunity to take a tour of the ships; the enthusiasm was just as great as that of the Australians. Again there were air shows over Wellington.

Shortly after leaving New Zealand, the task force crossed the date line on September 10th . From there, the fleet entered the Pacific, traveling further east, and crossed it without further stopping at an average speed of 28 knots. During this voyage, the ships mainly had to deal with bad weather, waves of up to 14 feet (approx. 4 meters) were measured, and Long Beach rolled up to 41 °.

Nuclear Task Force One circled Cape Horn through the Drake Passage on September 17th, entering the Atlantic Ocean , where it had started its journey.

She made further short visits to Buenos Aires , Montevideo as well as São Paulo and Santos (September 23), all of which witnessed further air shows.

As of 23 September, the last port of time spent in followed Brazilian Rio de Janeiro . The ships announced themselves with a gun salute, which was returned by the Brazilians. By the time it left on September 25, 2,668 people had visited the Enterprise . Finally, 37 hunters flew over the famous beaches of Rio.

The three ships then headed north and ended their voyage on October 3, 1964, off Norfolk , Virginia .

Accidents during Operation Sea Orbit

Off Pakistan on August 20, a UH-2 helicopter failed to drive and fell 1.5 nautical miles from the Enterprise . The four crew members were rescued unharmed within a few minutes. The helicopter was towed from a Bainbridge dinghy and brought alongside the Enterprise , where a steel cable was attached to the rotor. However, while the wreck was being pulled up, the cable tore and the helicopter sank.

On September 25, off Brazil, Flare 407 , an A-5A supersonic bomber, suffered damage to its hydraulic system when it was about 17 nautical miles from the Enterprise . The two crew members got out of the ejection seat and were rescued unharmed by a helicopter.


Nuclear Task Force One required a total of 58 days of pure sailing time for the 30,565 nautical miles journey ( i.e. without port lay times, 65 days with lay times), which means an average speed of around 25 knots. She crossed the equator four times during her journey, the date line once at 41 ° 41 'south latitude.

A total of 19,936 visitors came on board the three ships in the ports, while 425 guests came to the underway visits on the Enterprise .

Approximate route of Operation Sea Orbit. Dots symbolize visits to ports, in Australia the ships are divided into three ports.


Another picture of the units in the Mediterranean

Operation Sea Orbit, in which the three first nuclear-powered surface ships in the world were united, demonstrated for the first time the practical use of nuclear propulsion on surface ships too, making a fleet completely self-sufficient both from the coasts with their ports for subsequent bunkering and from the tenders made. In addition, the nuclear drive allows high average speeds, in Operation Sea Orbit it was around 25 knots.

Apart from that, the operation was also a strategic success for the US Navy , as its ability was proven to move powerful units to all regions of the world in the shortest possible time with minimal logistical support and to remain there until conventionally driven support arrived. Above all, it should be noted that even after a high-speed journey over long distances, immediate operational readiness in the target area is guaranteed.

At the time of the operation in the mid-1960s, such a demonstration of United States power was a major issue. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just ended , also through massive use of the navy, which showed the influence of the American armed forces in the vicinity of their own bases. Operation Sea Orbit proved that this was also possible far away from the American mainland, especially in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. This demonstration was an important element of American foreign policy in the wake of the slowly emerging Vietnam War .

The then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote to the then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in a memorandum on October 13, 1964 :

I am most gratified that Operation SEA ORBIT was such a success, particularly from a political and psychological standpoint. I am especially pleased that the underway visit in East Africa and the port call in Karachi went so well. This will materially further our objective of institutionalizing a periodic US Naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

In German, for example:

I am very pleased that Operation Sea Orbit was such a success, especially from a political and psychological point of view. I am particularly satisfied that the visits to East Africa and the port lay time in Karachi worked so well. This will further advance our goal of establishing a periodic naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Web links

Commons : Operation Sea Orbit  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Memorandum for The Honorable Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense ( Memento of October 16, 2000 in the Internet Archive ) (English)
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on November 24, 2005 .