Constellation III (CVA-64)
The configuration of the 15 stars in the original United States national flag.
(CVA-64: displacement 60,100; length 1,047'6"; beam 129'4"; extreme width 248'5"; speed 33 knots; complement 5,480; armament 4 RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missiles; aircraft 85; class Kitty Hawk)
The contract for the third Constellation (CVA-64) was awarded on 1 July 1956; the ship was laid down on 14 September 1957, by New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, N.Y.; and christened on 8 October 1960 by Mrs. Mary C. Herter, née Pratt, wife of Secretary of State Christian A. Herter. Tragedy struck the ship on 19 December 1960, when a catastrophic fire caused the loss of 50 workers and $75 million in damages. Following a delay to repair the damages, she was delivered to the Navy on 1 October 1961, and commissioned on 27 October 1961, Capt. Thomas. J. Walker, in command.
The first of more than 1,000 crew members to move aboard the attack aircraft carrier Constellation (CVA-64), Saturday, August 12, march up the gangway of the nearly completed ship at the New York Naval Shipyard, Brooklyn, New York. A total of 50 officers and 970 enlisted men, who had been living at the U.S. Naval Receiving Station in Brooklyn and the U.S. Naval Base, Norfolk, Virginia, moved aboard the 60,000-ton ship which had a final complement of approximately 4,000 men. The first crew members were welcomed aboard by Captain Thomas J. Walker, U.S. Navy, prospective commanding officer of Constellation. Text quoted from the original caption, released by the Headquarters Third Naval District, 90 Church St., New York, on 18 August 1961. Official U.S. Navy photograph from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 98612.
Following fitting out and acceptance trials, Constellation departed her home port of Norfolk, Va., on 7 February 1962, for initial air operations off the Virginia capes. She conducted her first catapult launch and arrested landing the same day with Cmdr. George C. Watkins, Commander Carrier Air Group (CVG) 13, at the controls of a Douglas A4D-2 (A-4B) Skyhawk of Attack Squadron (VA) 34. After a month of operating locally, Constellation conducted a two-month shakedown cruise in the Caribbean.
In summer 1962, Constellation was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and CVG-13 was disestablished. For the two-month trip around Cape Horn to her new home port of San Diego, Calif., Constellation embarked elements of CVG-5 and departed Mayport, Fla., on 25 July. In November Constellation, with CVG-14 on board, began workup exercises for her upcoming maiden deployment to the western Pacific as a component of the Seventh Fleet (February–September 1963).
Constellation’s second deployment began on 5 May 1964. She relieved Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) on station in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam on 8 June, embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 14 (air groups had been redesignated air wings on 20 December 1963), and launched armed photoreconnaissance missions over Laos until 13 July. Following an upkeep period at Subic Bay in the Philippines, Constellation reached Hong Kong for a port visit on 27 July, but within a few days was called back into action.
Following an attack by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats on destroyer Maddox (DD-731) on 2 August, Constellation got underway to return to the Gulf of Tonkin. Further word was received of a second attack on Maddox and and Turner Joy (DD-951) on 4 August. That day, Constellation launched McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom IIs to join aircraft from attack aircraft carrier Ticonderoga (CVA-14) in providing air cover over the destroyers. On 5 August both carriers took part in Operation Pierce Arrow—retaliatory carrier strikes ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Constellation and Ticonderogalaunched 64 attack sorties against vessels and facilities at five locations along the North Vietnamese coast at Bai Chay, Cua Hoi, Gianh River, and Lach Truong, and petroleum-oil-lubricants storage areas at Vinh. The attacks sank or damaged an estimated 25 vessels and destroyed petroleum stores and storage facilities. Enemy antiaircraft fire shot down two CVW-14 aircraft over Hon Gai, killing one pilot, and their troops captured the other. These clashes led to the Joint Congressional Resolution of 7 August 1964, known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, approving the U.S. actions and escalating U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Operations returned to a more normal cycle for the remainder of the deployment, and Constellation returned to San Diego on 1 February 1965, ending a nearly nine-month cruise. Constellation and CVW-14 were awarded a Navy Unit Commendation (NUC) for the early August operations.
Constellation’s first shipyard period followed, lasting eight months; then workups commenced for her first full-blown war cruise. The carrier, with CVW-15 on board, was underway for operations off Vietnam in May 1966. During 111 days on station, Constellation’s aircraft pounded roads, bridges and other targets, attempting to impede the flow of men and war materials south. The F-4B aircrew of pilot Lt. William M. McGunigan and radar intercept officer Lt. (j.g.) Robert M. Fowler from Fighter Squadron (VF) 161 shot down a Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) 17 Fresco on 13 July, marking the ship’s first MiG kill of the war. Constellation returned to San Diego in December after her seven-month combat cruise, having lost 16 aircrewmen and 15 aircraft. Subsequently, both Constellation and CVW-15 received a NUC for this deployment.
After a short workup cycle, Constellation’s third combat deployment commenced in April 1967. With CVW-14 embarked, the carrier operated first on Dixie Station (a patrol area about 60 miles off South Vietnam) with strikes in the Iron Triangle region, and then moved north to Yankee Station (a patrol area about 50 miles off North Vietnam) for a total of 121 days on the line. Reflecting the intensive nature of air operations, F-4Bs of VFs 142 and 143 accounted for four MiG kills. The eight-month deployment ended in December, having totaled losses of 16 aircraft and 20 men, including seven killed and eight captured. Both the carrier and the air wing received a NUC.
Returning to Vietnam in May 1968 after six months stateside, the Constellation/CVW-14 team was restricted to strikes below the 20th parallel of North Vietnam as a result of a March presidential order. They followed this by a complete halt to strikes over the north on 1 November. Constellation spent 128 days on the line, flying more than 11,000 combat and support missions and dropping almost 20,000 tons of ordnance. Fifteen aircraft were destroyed, nine due to enemy action. Six aircrew perished, five were listed as killed in action, and three were taken as prisoners. The eight-month deployment ended in January 1969.
By August, it was time for Constellation to return to Vietnam for a fifth combat deployment, again with CVW-14. Following an initial 20-day period of supporting strikes in South Vietnam as well as Laos, Constellation sailed to Defender Station in the Sea of Japan, which had been created as a result of increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Two North Korean MiG-21 Fishbeds shot down Deep Sea 129, an unarmed Lockheed EC-121M (BuNo 135749) of VQ-1, while the Constellation flew a routine reconnaissance patrol in international airspace over the Sea of Japan near 41º12’N, 131º48’E from NAS Atsugi, Japan. The attackers killed all 31 crewmen. The U.S. prepared contingency plans ranging from tactical air raids against North Korean military targets to aerial mining by Grumman A-6 Intruders of VA-35 operating from Enterprise (CVAN-65), a blockade, or expanded strikes.
A return to Yankee Station on 1 November also produced a major milestone in the carrier’s life when the F-4J aircrew of air wing skipper Cmdr. R. K. Billings and Lt. (j.g.) Jeffrey Taylor of VF-143 accomplished Constellation's 100,000th arrested landing. During a mission on 28 March 1970, the VF-142 F-4 crew of Lts Jerome E. Beaulier and Steven J. Barkley downed a North Vietnamese MiG-21. Following a total of 128 days on the line, Constellation ’s nine-month deployment ended in May, with CVW-14 suffering the loss of seven total aircraft, five to enemy action. One aircrewman was taken as a POW, but there were no fatalities.
Upon her return Constellation began a nine-month major shipyard overhaul, her second since commissioning. In spring 1971 she welcomed on board a new air wing, CVW-9, and departed San Diego on 1 October for what would become a historic combat deployment. Air operations kicked off with strikes against mainly logistic targets in Laos as well as reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam into 1972. On 19 January, the VF-96 F-4 Phantom crew of Lt. Randall H. Cunningham and Lt. (j.g.) William P. Driscoll scored a kill against a MiG-21, the first for a Navy aircraft since Constellation ’s VF-142 kill on 28 March 1970. The carrier was nearing the end of her scheduled deployment when her tour was extended to meet the threat posed by the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive” of 2 April 1972.
Lt. (j.g.) William P. Driscoll and Lt. Randall Cunningham, Radar Intercept Officer (left) and pilot of F-4J Phanton II, rest and debrief in the ready room of USS Constelellation (CVA-64) after completing an air strike in which they downed their second MIG-17 aircraft. Two days later the two men downed three more MIGS and became the first aces of the war before being forced to parachute from their disabled craft into the Gulf of Tonkin. National Archives photograph, USN 1151705.
Initial air strikes in support of ground troops were followed by a new, more intensive series of air strikes against major targets in North Vietnam. On 8 May, the same VF-96 aircrew team of Cunningham and Driscoll scored against a MiG-17. Then on 10 May, Cunningham and Driscoll downed three MiG-17s, becoming the first aces of the Vietnam war. Three more MiG-17s were downed by two other VF-96 crews, two by Lts. Michael J. Connelly and Thomas J. Blonski, and one by Lt. Steven C. Shoemaker and Lt. (j.g.) Keith V. Crenshaw. Adding to the score, VF-92 aircrew Lt. Curt Dose and Lt. Cmdr. James McDevitt downed a MiG-21. All told, Constellation fliers splashed seven MiGs on 10 May. The nine-month deployment ended on 1 July, the carrier having spent 154 days off Vietnam. Seven aircraft were lost, two aircrewmen were reported killed in action and two became POWs. The Constellation /CVW-9 team received the Presidential Unit Citation for their outstanding efforts.
In January 1973, Constellation headed back to Southeast Asia. The Vietnam Peace Accords took effect on 28 January, but CVW-9 aircraft continued to strike targets in Laos until a cease-fire in that country on 21 February. Thus Constellation , which had been on station at the beginning of combat operations in Vietnam in 1964, was on station at the end, nine years later. The remainder of the nine-month deployment consisted largely of flights in support of mine-clearing operations in North Vietnam.
Upon her return in October 1973, Constellation enjoyed a nine-month workup cycle, and departed in June 1974 for her first peacetime deployment in 10 years. On 23 November, she became the first carrier to enter the Arabian Gulf since 1949. The six-month cruise ended on 23 December 1975.
A 14-month major overhaul and upgrade at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Wash., began in February 1974, during which Constellation was modified to reflect the Navy’s new multipurpose air, surface and antisubmarine warfare role for carriers. She was reclassified a CV on 30 June 1975. With the overhaul completed in April 1976, Constellation could operate both the new Lockheed S-3A Viking and Grumman F-14A Tomcat. The workups uncovered problems, however, that required a 26-day drydocking in late 1976 at Long Beach Naval Shipyard, Calif. The highlight for the remaining workup cycle was participation in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) multinational exercises held in and around the Hawaiian Islands. An uneventful April to November 1977 deployment, Constellation ’s tenth, to the Far East followed.
Constellation’s next deployment, with CVW-9 embarked (26 September 1978–17 May 1979), was originally scheduled to end in March but extended due to her sortie into the Indian Ocean in reaction to a political crisis in Yemen. Following a relatively short eight-month turnaround cycle, she stood out to sea again in February 1980. After participating in RIMPAC exercises, Constellation steamed westward to the Arabian Sea, where Gonzo Station had been established following the November 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Constellation had reached the eastern Indian Ocean when an unsuccessful raid to free American hostages took place on 24 April 1980, and she relieved Coral Sea (CV-43) on Gonzo Station on 1 May. This at-sea period would last a record-setting 110 days. The deployment ended in mid-October.
During the 1981 workup cycle President Ronald W. Reagan visited Constellation on 20 August, and proclaimed the carrier “America’s Flagship” while presenting the crew a presidential flag. An uneventful deployment with CVW-9 to the western Pacific and Indian Ocean followed (20 October 1981–23 May 1982). In January 1983, Constellation entered the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a 13-month complex overhaul, during which the NATO Sea Sparrow replaced the ship’s RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missile system, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System was added, and further modifications enabled the carrier to operate the new F/A-18A Hornet strike aircraft. Constellation deployed from February to August 1985 with CVW-14 embarked, marking the first deployment for the F/A-18.
As preparations for a 1987 deployment proceeded, it was announced that Constellation had earned the coveted Pacific Fleet Battle Efficiency Award (Battle E) for the 18-month period ending on 30 June 1986. During an April to October 1987 deployment, Constellation conducted air operations in support of Operation Earnest Will, the escorting of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in the Arabian Gulf as a result of Iranian attacks against international shipping. During the ensuing turnaround period stateside, the aircraft carrier suffered a major engine room fire on 2 August, which her firefighter teams fought for more than 24 hours before bringing it under control. The warship returned to San Diego under her own power on 3 August, and the crew spent only two months cleaning and repairing main machinery room No. 1, successfully firing off all boilers on 29 September one month ahead of schedule. Following a quick series of readiness exercises, the Constellation/CVW-14 team deployed on 1 December 1988 for the Indian Ocean. The deployment proved uneventful, and after visits to Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory; Karachi, Pakistan; Perth and Fremantle, Australia; and Pattaya Beach, Thailand; the aircraft carrier turned for home, arriving at San Diego on 1 June 1989.
With CVW-9 embarked, Constellation cleared San Diego on 12 February 1990 for the East Coast. Following exercises with the air forces of several South American countries while en route and preparations at Norfolk, Constellation entered Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Pa., in July to begin a $800-million, three-year Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). Completed in March 1993, the SLEP was a cross between new construction and a comprehensive overhaul, designed to add 15 years to the carrier’s operational life. Constellation conducted her post-SLEP shakedown with a number of CVW-17 squadrons then moored at Mayport, Fla., on 8 April. With CVW-2 assigned, Constellation departed Mayport on 29 May and conducted exercises with various South American air forces while en route to San Diego, where she arrived on 22 July 1993.
During May and June 1994 Constellation and CVW-2 participated in RIMPAC exercises, and on 10 November departed San Diego for an extended deployment for the first time in six years. Exercises off Okinawa were followed by a number of exercises off the Korean region that had once again become the focus of world attention with the news that North Korea was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. On 11 January 1995, the Constellation battle group entered the Arabian Gulf to take up station in support of Operation Southern Watch (OSW), enforcing the “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq. The six-month deployment concluded with her return to San Diego on 10 May. Constellation’s next deployment (1 April–1 October 1997), included a return to the Arabian Gulf for OSW activities, now under operational control of the Fifth Fleet. In over 10 weeks of operating in the gulf, CVW-2 flew more than 4,400 sorties, with well over 1,000 sorties in direct support of OSW.
As Constellation prepared for her 1999 deployment, tensions were once again rising on the Korean Peninsula following an exchange of gunfire between North and South Korean vessels. Constellationdeparted San Diego on 18 June 1999 for the region to monitor the situation. On 28 August, she entered the Arabian Gulf and in 10 weeks conducted more than 5,000 sorties and 1,256 OSW sorties. This period was highlighted by air strikes against two Iraqi radar stations and an attempt by VF-2 to engage an Iraqi jet with a AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile on 14 September. CVW-2 aircraft engaged in nine specific ordnance-dropping air strikes while in the Arabian Gulf. The battle group departed the gulf on 5 November and was home for the holidays on 17 December. At year’s end, Constellation was awarded her second Battle E as the Pacific Fleet’s best carrier for the 12-month reporting period.
Constellation’s 20th deployment began on 16 March 2001. She entered the Arabian Gulf on 30 April and immediately took part in operations in support of OSW. On 13 May Capt. John W. Miller assumed command as Constellation’s 30th skipper, and her last. She ceased OSW operations on 4 August, having conducted multiple air strikes in response to Iraqi violations of the no-fly zone. On 11 September Constellation was approaching San Diego, having taken on board dependents at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for the traditional Tiger Cruise on the final leg home, when word was received of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Despite discussions about turning the battle group around, the carrier was allowed to complete her regularly scheduled deployment. Constellation arrived in San Diego on 15 September and celebrated her 40th birthday the next month.
Following an abbreviated turnaround cycle, Constellation prepared for her final deployment and the opportunity to fight in the global war on terrorism. She departed on 2 November 2002, and was soon supporting Operation Enduring Freedom; on 17 December she entered the Arabian Gulf to begin OSW missions. On 19 March 2003, with two carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and three in the gulf, Operation Iraqi Freedom started. Connie was designated a night carrier and remained on station throughout the major ground combat phase. She launched more than 1,500 sorties and CVW-2 aircraft dropped or fired more than 1.7 million pounds of ordnance. While one aircraft was lost in an operational mishap, there were no fatalities.
Constellation departed the gulf on 17 April and steamed for San Diego for the last time. On 1 June a Sea Control Squadron 38 S-3B Viking crewed by Lt. Hartley Postlethwaite, Lt (j.g.) Arthur Gutting, and Capt. Miller recorded Constellation’s 395,710th and final arrested landing. Her 21st and final deployment ended the next day.
On 7 August 2003, Constellation’s commissioning pennant was hauled down and her deck log closed. The ship was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 2 December 2003. Her legacy might best be remembered today in the words of President Reagan from 1981: “Let friend and foe alike know that America has the muscle to back up its words, and ships like this and men like you are that muscle . . . you are America’s Flagship.”
Constellation is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Updated by Mark L. Evans
8 April 2020