She is the only remaining ship in the U.S. Navy that has sent an enemy ship down to the briny deep.
The USS Constitution, which will turn 218 years old on Oct. 21, regained the open-water combat title after the USS Simpson was decommissioned in 2015.
The Simpson saw her moment of combat glory in 1988, when it drilled an Iranian gunboat with four missiles during the Persian Gulf War. That fight was the last U.S. Navy surface battle since WWII.
TheConstitution, a three-masted heavy frigate, was one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794 and boasted 30 24-pound cannons, 22 32-pounders and four chase guns, two at the port and two to the bow.
At top speed, she could clock 13 knots, or roughly 15 miles per hour. Her pine and live oak siding became a figure of American legend as she smoked several British ships and captures prized vessels in the War of 1812. British cannonballs bounced off of the oak hull during the fight with the HMS Guerriere.
“Standing on her decks is an amazing experience,” Petty Officer 1st Class Peter Melkus said. “The biggest difference between an operational and deployable modern ship and the Constitution was learning the rigging, climbing and the skill sets that are forgotten in the modern world. It’s an amazing experience learning centuries old methods, learning about the guns, the warfare strategies, the supplies for the sailors to get by. When I joined six years ago, I never saw this coming.”
The HMS Victory in the British fleet is 32 years older than the Constitution, but is permanently drydocked and serves as a museum in Portsmouth. It is for the best that the two never met in battle. The Victory, which has nearly double the amount of guns as the Constitution, would likely have blown her out of the water.
“If the Victory had cornered the Constitution, it would have been a tough day for her,” Melkus said. “The Constitution is a frigate class ship and was designed for gun-and-run battles. The Victory has about 100 guns to her 50.”
The nature of warfare has changed dramatically since the battles fought in the War of 1812, when Old Ironsides terrorized the British fleet with her seemingly impenetrable hull.
Today, aircraft carriers the size of city blocks deploy fleets of airplanes to the far reaches of the globe and can pinpoint Tomahawk missile strikes from miles away.
“Our Navy has done such a great job establishing a reputation of the best in the world that our enemies don’t want to engage in battle with us,” Melkus said. “That started with Constitution and has grown ever since. We are very proud of that.”
Melkus was stationed on the Constitution from 2013 to 2014 and was more than grateful to shovel her decks during the winter months and stand on deck during the summer heat.
“The ship really does speak to us,” Melkus said. “It is on Navy officer’s bucket list. They flock to Charlestown at some point to see her. Even the non-history buffs walk away with a sense of awe.”
These days, the Constitution has 75 to 80 sailors on board and is a special assignment duty that requires an interview, a review of military service, a commanding officer’s signature and a special screening as well as a required written expression of interest from the applying sailor.
“It’s tough to imagine what it must have been like,” Melkus said. “It’s an extensive history lessons and you try as hard as you can to put yourself in the sailor’s shoes (some sailors didn’t even have shoes) during 1812. It not an easy life with 20 hour days, 4 for sleep it. It gives the crew a great appreciation for how easy we might have it compared to those sailors who endured the hardships.”