When the USS Belknap was launched in 1963, she was the first of her class of the new guided missile cruiser vessels in the United States Navy. Named after Rear Admiral George E. Belknap and Reginald Rowan Belknap, she was the pinnacle of naval warfare technology at the time. Belknap class was designated as single-ended guided missile cruisers, referring to their main guided missile armament placed only at the forward part of the ship. Unfortunately, that is not why Belknap is best known for. She is usually remembered for her collision with the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67).
In 1975, both ships were deployed to the Mediterranean Sea, in response to the tensions in the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War under the command of the Sixth Fleet. On 22 November 1975, USS Kennedy’s task force, of which Belknap was a part of, was performing night-time flying drills. Ships were running parallel to each other when Belknap made the turn and rammed the huge carrier.
One of the jet fuel lines on the Kennedy was ruptured in the collision, and highly flammable JP-5 fuel started spraying decks of both ships. Fires broke out almost immediately and soon the Belknap was engulfed with flames. Damage control teams tried to suppress the fires, but the ship’s superstructure was made of aluminum, which soon started to melt, adding to their troubles. Two nearest ships, the guided missile destroyer the Claude V. Ricketts and the destroyer Bordelon, flanked Belknap on both sides and added their fire hoses to the effort, concentrating on midship, which Belknap crew couldn’t reach.
Rickets also assisted with the removal of the wounded personnel from Belknap, but some men refused to be evacuated, remaining on board to try and save their ship.
It took two hours to subdue the flames. Seven members of Belknap’s crew died, and the entire superstructure of the ship melted, leaving a huge gap. USS Kennedy fared better, losing one member of the crew and suffering minor damage due to the fire and collision. It also earned nicknames “Can Opener” and “Jack the Tin Can Killer.”
One of the major consequences of the collision was that the US Navy gave up on aluminum and switched to the all-steel superstructure. Belknap went through an extensive repair and rehaul process in Philadelphia Naval Yard, where she spent the next four years. She continued to serve as the flagship of the Sixth Fleet and was used as a testbed for new Aegis systems. In 1989, President George H. Bush was accommodated aboard Belknap during the Malta Summit.
She was decommissioned in 1995 and sunk as a target three years later.