Six U.S. Navy vessels. Each named for Savannah. Their service started in 1798. It continues to this day. From wooden hulls, to steel gun turrets, to a sleek aluminum sea frame that can execute surface, mine and anti-submarine warfare, they have represented this city, and reflected the courage and commitment of the U.S. Navy.
USS Savannah, 1798-1800
Under the command of Capt. John F. Randolph, the galley USS Savannah completed its first voyage in December of 1798. It carried a 3-ton brass 24-pounder cannon in the bow. Twenty-five muskets, with 25 bayonets, and 25 boarding pikes provided additional armaments.
The Quasi War was undeclared and undefined, a seagoing squabble between the youthful United States and a longtime European ally. France contended that the United States still owed payments on debts dating back to the Revolutionary War. President John Adams balked. Louis XVI and the old royal government were gone. End of obligation. The French responded by plundering American merchant shipping.
From 1798 and into 1800, the Southern coast was considered especially vulnerable. The nascent U.S. Navy provided little protection, so a decision was reached to construct six galleys, two each for Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Eventually, as tensions eased, the Navy Department notified the galley captains in November of 1800 to stow their oars and “consider yourselves as discharged from Public Service.”
USS Savannah, 1842-1870
Construction on the frigate USS Savannah started in 1820. She stayed high and dry on a frame at the New York Navy Dock for some 20 years though, a casualty of slow cash flow. Finally, in 1844, she joined the Pacific Squadron. Manned by 480 sailors and armed with four 8-inch shell guns, 28 32-pounders and 22 42-pound carronades, the Savannah represented a powerful force. On July 7, 1846, at the onset of the Mexican War, the city of Monterey surrendered to the Savannah without her firing a shot. In 1853 and continuing into 1856, the Savannah sailed off the coast of Brazil. She was deactivated in November of 1856, but returned to sea in 1859 as the flagship of a squadron off the east coast of Mexico.
Her next duty was the Civil War. As part of a United States blockade force, the Savannah was positioned in the waters off her namesake city. She participated in the capture of two Confederate ships, but in February of 1862 was removed from active service. Her final years under the U.S. flag were spent as practice ship for the Naval Academy. In 1870, she was decommissioned and placed at the Norfolk Navy Yard until 1883 when she was sold to E. Stannard and Co. of Westbrook, Conn.
USS Savannah, 1917-1934
Launched in Germany in 1899, impounded by the United States in 1914, and converted into a submarine tender in 1917, the third USS Savannah dropped its anchor in its namesake city in February of 1919. Thousands toured the massive submarine tender. They sauntered across the decks, and checked out the machine shop, blacksmith shop, barber shop, torpedo storage area, medical facilities and other quarters for three days. The submarines were off limits. Several of them, though, were berthed nearby, and curiosity abounded. “At one time, for probably a thousand feet, the wharf front was packed three or four deep with those intent on securing the clearest possible impressions of (this) type of warcraft,” the Savannah Morning News reported.
During World War I, she tended to as many as eight submarines in operations off the East Coast. After the war, the Savannah supported her submarines in torpedo practice exercises, fleet maneuvers and other operations. She crossed through the Panama Canal several times to serve with the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. In 1926, she was decommissioned, and placed in reserve at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. As the Navy expanded, the name Savannah was selected again, this time for a light cruiser. The submarine tender was then declared surplus and sold in 1934.
USS Savannah, 1937-1947
The next USS Savannah, a brand-new, state-of-the-art light cruiser, docked at the Atlantic Coast Lines’ wharves on April 25, 1938. Its stay was tightly scripted. “The Official Fleet Week Program On the Occasion of the First Visit of the U.S.S. Savannah to the City of Savannah, Georgia,” published by the city, listed 34 separate events over seven days. One ceremony was especially poignant. The school children of Savannah had collected $1,800 (equivalent to $35,000 today) to purchase a seven-piece silver tea service for the ship. It was presented to the crew in a ceremony at Forsyth Park on April 27.
The cruiser’s World War II service was distinguished and dangerous. She supplied support and devastatingly accurate naval gunfire in three separate offenses. But, on Sept. 11, 1943, off the coast of Italy, her luck ran out. A powerful anti-ship guided bomb, launched from a German bomber, sliced into the Savannah and exploded in the lower ammunition room. The casualty list: 197 sailors killed, 15 seriously wounded. The Savannah struggled to return to Malta, but was able to eventually sail to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for repairs.
The cruiser returned to Savannah in October, 1945, to commemorate Navy Day and victory in World War II. A massive parade culminated the celebration. “Bull Street was packed a dozen deep over the entire snakelike march, the heaviest concentration being at Broughton Street and at the De Soto,” the Morning News reported. No one knew it then, but this was the Savannah’s third (she visited in 1939) and final call to her home city. On Dec. 19, 1945, she moved to the Philadelphia Naval Yard for inactivation overhaul. On Feb. 27, 1959, her name was stricken from the Navy list, and on Jan. 6, 1960, she was purchased by Bethlehem Steel Co. as scrap metal.
USS Savannah, 1970-1995
On its maiden voyage, the replenishment oiler USS Savannah docked in Savannah for the city’s biggest party, the 1971 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The passage from Norfolk, Va., took 27 hours to complete, and she stayed in Savannah for six days.
Launched on April 23, 1970, and commissioned on Dec. 5, 1970, she was manned by 34 officers and 463 enlisted men. The Savannah carried more than 7 million gallons of black oil, jet fuel and aviation gasoline, along with food and ammunition. In September of 1971, she sailed to the Mediterranean, and in January of 1972 was ordered to Vietnam. She refueled and replenished other vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin for some five months. For that duty, the Savannah was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal with a Star. Her service ended when she was decommissioned on July 28, 1995.
USS Savannah, 2020-
The story of the sixth USS Savannah has not been written. But we do know this much: She’s nothing like the first five. This Savannah was christened on Aug. 29, 2020, by Dianne Isakson, the wife of former Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson. “Today we christened the sixth USS Savannah following an outstanding record of service named for a great American city,” said Kenneth J. Braithwaite, then the secretary of the Navy. Since then, she passed acceptance trials in May of this year, and is scheduled to homeport in San Diego.
A littoral combat ship, the Savannah is a “high-speed, agile, shallow draft, focused-mission” combatant designed to “conduct surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures missions in the littoral near-shore region while also possessing the capacity for deep-water operations,” according to an Austral USA press statement. She’s 422 feet in length, and carries two helicopters. She’s armed with Mk 110 57-mm guns and RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles. “There is no doubt future sailors aboard this ship will carry on the same values of honor, courage and commitment upheld by crews from earlier vessels that bore the name,” Braithwaite commented at her christening.