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Aubrey Fitch (FFG-34)


Aubrey Wray Fitch, born in St. Ignace, Mich., on 11 June 1883, entered the U.S. Naval Academy in the summer of 1902 and graduated on 12 February 1906. After serving the two years of sea duty then required by law before commissioning, first in Pennsylvania (Armored Cruiser No. 4) and then in Chauncey (Destroyer No.3). Fitch became an ensign on 13 February 1908 and served afloat in Rainbow (Submarine Tender No.7) and Concord (Gunboat No.3) before receiving instruction in torpedoes at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I., in the school conducted on board Montgomery (Cruiser No.9).

Upon completion of the torpedo course, Fitch helped to fit out Delaware (Battleship No. 28), that went into commission on 4 April 1910, before returning to Annapolis for consecutive tours of duty at the Naval Academy, first as assistant discipline officer, and later as an instructor of physical training, during 1912 and1913. Service in Balch (Destroyer No. 50) and Duncan (Destroyer No. 46) followed before he received his first sea command, Terry (Destroyer No. 25), with the 2nd Division, Reserve Torpedo Flotilla, Atlantic Fleet.

After serving on the staff of the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, Fitch assumed command of the yacht Yankton in January 1915, with additional duty as aide to the Commander in Chief.

Relieved of command of Yankton shortly after the United States entered the Great War [World War I] in the spring of 1917, Fitch continued his staff duties for another five months before joining Wyoming (Battleship No. 32) to serve as her gunnery officer for the remainder of hostilities, as that dreadnought operated with the Sixth Battle Squadron, Grand Fleet.

After the Armistice, Fitch again served at the Naval Academy once more before becoming, concurrently, inspector of ordnance in charge of the Naval Ammunition Depot, Hingham, Mass., and naval inspector of ordnance in charge at the Naval Coaling Station, Frenchman's Bay, Maine. From August 1920, Fitch commanded a division of light minelayers, while also commanding in turn Luce (DM-4) and Mahan (DM-7).

Detached from Mahan in December 1922, Fitch served at Rio de Janeiro until March 1927 as a member of the United States mission to Brazil before reporting back to the Navy Department for a brief tour of duty in Washington, D.C. Going to sea as executive officer of battleship Nevada (BB-36) in May 1927, Fitch assumedcommand of the storeship Arctic (AF-7) (a type of ship sometimes known colloquially as a "beef boat") in November of that year.

He reported for aviation instruction at the Naval Air Station (NAS), Pensacola, Fla., in June 1929 and there won his wings as a naval aviator on 4 February 1930. Following brief duty at NAS, San Diego, Calif., Fitch assumed command of seaplane tender Wright (AV-1) in the spring of 1930. Relieved in that billet a little over a year later (July 1931), he then began a year as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Langley (CV-1).

After commanding NAS, Hampton Roads, Va., until June 1935, Fitch reported as chief of staff to Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, and remained in that billet until assuming command of Lexington (CV-2) in April 1936. Subsequently attending the Naval War College, Newport, R.I., from June 1937 to May 1938, Fitch completed the senior course there before assuming command of NAS, Pensacola, in June 1938. In the spring of 1940, he took over the reins of Patrol Wing 2, based at Pearl Harbor, and, seven months later, broke his flag in Saratoga (CV-3) as Commander, Carrier Division 1. The outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific in December 1941 thus found Fitch one of the most experienced carrier commanders afloat.

Fitch's flagship, Saratoga, figured prominently in the abortive attempt to reinforce Wake Island in December 1941 but was later torpedoed by Japanese submarineI-6, 500 miles southwest of Oahu, T.H., on 11 January 1942, seriously cutting U.S. carrier strength in the Pacific at a critical period.

Rear Adm. Fitch relieved Vice Adm. Wilson Brown on 3 April 1942, breaking his flag in Lexington, his former command. During the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May 1942), Fitch served as Commander, Task Group (TG) 17.5, consisting of "Lady Lex" and Yorktown (CV-5). That engagement, the first in history where neither side came within surface gun range of the other, effectively stopped the Japanese thrust at strategic Port Moresby, but resulted in the first loss of an U.S. aircraft carrier in the war, Lexington, sunk on 8 May 1942.

With Lexington's loss, the admiral shifted his flag to heavy cruiser Minneapolis (CA-36), then, together with Capt. Frederick C. Sherman, Lexington's commanding officer, and Cmdr. Morton T. Seligman, his executive officer, visited Lexington's wounded in Minneapolis's sick bay, an action that "contributed in no small measure to the patients' well-being." For the leadership he exhibited during the Battle of the Coral Sea, Fitch received his first Distinguished Service Medal.

He again broke his flag in his repaired and modernized former flagship, Saratoga, but while the task group formed around her arrived too late to take part in the Battle of Midway, she delivered planes to bolster the atoll's defenses in the wake of the pivotal Pacific battle.

On 20 September 1942, six weeks after the first American amphibious operation of the war got underway at Guadalcanal, Fitch became Commander Aircraft, South Pacific Force (ComAirSoPac). Not a desk-bound admiral, he carried out numerous hazardous flights into the combat zones, inspecting air activities incident to the selection of bases for projected operations. For these, he received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Under Fitch's command, AirSoPac, ultimately encompassing not only Navy but Army, Marine Corps, and Royal New Zealand air units, achieved great success in aiding the Allied campaign in the South Pacific. Fitch's planes protected Allied shipping, providing vital air cover that strongly assisted the Allies in challenging, and ultimately defeating, the Japanese in the Solomons. In addition, his aircraft performed essential reconnaissance missions, spotting enemy warships prior to the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942 and during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. Later, Fitch oversaw the early experiments in conducting night bombing utilizing radar (a concept that paid great dividends in interdicting Japanese shipping) and encouraged the use of specially modified aircraft to obtain photographic intelligence. In addition, for his skillful coordination of the Allied air effort in that area of the world, Fitch received a gold star in lieu of a second Distinguished Service Medal.

Fitch returned to Washington in the summer of 1944 and became Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air). He skillfully and efficiently directed the aeronautical organization of the Navy, oversaw efforts to assure the readiness and deployment of air units, and planned all of the related logistics measures. For these efforts he received a Legion of Merit.

After V-J Day, Vice Adm. Fitch assumed duty as the Superintendent of the Naval Academy on 16 August 1945 and held that post until 15 January 1947, with collateral duty as Commandant, Severn River Command. The first airman to head the Naval Academy, Fitch was instrumental in establishing the Department of Aeronautics, authorized by the Navy on 28 November 1945.

Subsequent to heading the Academy, Fitch served briefly in the office of the Undersecretary of the Navy before becoming the senior member of the Naval Clemency and Prison Inspection Board in March 1947. He was so serving when he was relieved of all active duty on 1 July 1947. Admiral Fitch died in his adopted state, Maine, on 22 May 1978.

(FFG-34: displacement 3,600; length 445'0"; beam 45'0"; draft 24'6"; speed 29 knots; complement 164; armament 1 missile launcher, Standard , Harpoon, 1 76 millimeter, 6 15.5-inch torpedo tubes, LAMPS; class Oliver Hazard Perry)

Aubrey Fitch (FFG-34) was laid down on 10 April 1981 at Bath, Maine, by Bath Iron Works; launched on 17 October 1981; sponsored by Mrs. Francesca Fitch Ferguson, the granddaughter of the late Admiral Fitch; and was commissioned at Bath, Maine, on 9 October 1982, Cmdr. Floyd A. Weeks in command.

Aubrey Fitch remained at Bath for another five weeks completing her outfitting, propulsion plant examination, and crew inspections. In mid-November, she made the passage from Bath to her home port, Mayport in Florida, where she spent the remainder of 1982. Early in January of 1983, the guided-missile frigate embarked upon her shakedown cruise to the vicinity of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The warship returned to Mayport during the middle of February and then launched into a series of trials, qualifications, and certifications preparatory to her final acceptance by the Navy. She completed final acceptance trials late in May and entered the yard at Bath Iron Works for a three-month, post-shakedown availability. Aubrey Fitch completed repairs and returned to Mayport in September. In October, she commenced refresher training out of Guantanamo Bay.

The guided missile frigate was so engaged when United States military forces invaded the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada on 25 October 1983 in response to a power struggle between leftist factions that endangered the stability of the region as well as the lives of American citizens attending the medical college there. Aubrey Fitch interrupted refresher training to conduct patrols in defense of the base at Guantanamo Bay against possible hostile action by Cuba as a result of the conflict in Grenada where Americans found themselves fighting Cuban "advisors" and "construction workers." Early in November, however, the warship completed refresher training and assumed tactical control of guided missile hydrofoil gunboats Aquila (PHM-4) and Taurus (PHM-3) for the purpose of testing the feasibility of operating those types of ships in the same task organization. Demands incident to the continuing American presence in Grenada, however, overtook the experiment and sent Aubrey Fitch and her two consorts south to the tiny republic. Duty in the waters adjacent to Grenada lasted until mid-December when the warship returned to Mayport.

Aubrey Fitch began 1984 in her home port. Later in January, she embarked upon a normal schedule of training operations in the West Indies. That employment occupied her through the month of May and into June. On 22 June, the guided missile frigate put to sea to become a unit of  the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]'s Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, based at Plymouth, England. That deployment included visits to a number of ports in northern Europe as well as training evolutions in the Baltic Sea. Early in the fall of 1984, the NATO force visited American waters and made calls at Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. Late in November, the warships visited Aubrey Fitch's home port in Florida. Early in December, the NATO force headed back to Europe, leaving Aubrey Fitch at Mayport.

The warship opened 1985 much the same way as she did 1984. After concluding holiday leave and upkeep at Mayport during the first half of January, she returned to sea for the usual training exercises, equipment operation certifications, and ASW helicopter landing qualifications. These and similar evolutions alternated with periods in port for routine upkeep and availability occupied her time during the first five months of the year. In June, Aubrey Fitch began providing escort and plane guard services for aircraft carriers America (CV-66) and Saratoga (CV-60) when they put to sea to conduct landing qualifications. Near the end of June, she put to sea for "special operations" off the west coast of the Isthmus of Panama. She transited the Panama Canal and then operated from the base at Rodman during July, August, and part of September. After passing back through the canal in mid-September, Aubrey Fitch arrived back at Mayport on the 21st. Repairs took up the remainder of September as well as October and November. She concluded her restricted availability with sea trials on 5 and 6 December and, after a brief round trip to Charleston and back, settled into the usual year-end holiday routine.

The relative inactivity of holiday standdown carried over into the first three weeks of 1986. On 21 January 1986, Aubrey Fitch put to sea for a week of ASW training in the Bahama Islands. On 28 January, she interrupted her return voyage when the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launch. From her position just 50 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral Aubrey Fitch rushed to the scene of the tragedy and began recovering debris. She collected several tons of material which she later delivered to Cape Canaveral to be inspected as a part of the investigation into the cause of the disaster. From Cape Canaveral the guided missile frigate returned to Mayport and remained there until the second week in February. On 10 February, Aubrey Fitch resumed training operations out of Mayport, and she continued so employed until the beginning of April at which time the warship began preparations to deploy to the Persian Gulf.

On 4 June 1986, Aubrey Fitch stood out of Mayport in company with guided missile frigate Talbot (FFG- 4) to rendezvous with destroyer Nicholson (DD-982) and guided missile destroyer Semmes (DDG-18). She and her traveling companions then laid in a course that took them across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, and around the Arabian Peninsula to the Strait of Hormuz. Aubrey Fitch and her consorts arrived at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf on 8 July. The guided-missile frigate spent the next four months conducting patrols and escorting merchant ships in the strategic and troubled waters of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the northern portion of the Arabian Sea. No untoward events marred her sojourn in the region, and she concluded her assignment on 30 October by turning her responsibilities over to guided missile destroyer Sampson (DDG-10). Retracing her outward-bound voyage via the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean, Aubrey Fitch steamed into Mayport on 4 December. Post-deployment standdown took up the remainder of 1986 and as of the beginning of 1987, the warship was at Mayport

Over the next ten years, Aubrey Fitch continued to the Middle East and the West Indies. During a 1988 deployment to the Persian Gulf, the frigate participated in Operation Earnest Will, during which she conducted escort missions to protect Kuwaiti merchant tankers from attack during the Iran-Iraq War. In December 1990 the warship conducted counter-narcotics patrols in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, and received a Joint Meritorious Unit Award for her efforts. In July 1991, Aubrey Fitch hosted the Soviet guided missile destroyer Simferopol during a visit to Mayport.

In August 1991, following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army, the frigate surged to the Middle East to participate in Maritime Interception Operations (MIO) in the northern Red Sea. Designed to cut the flow of supplies and equipment to Iraq in support of United Nations' economic sanctions, Aubrey Fitch conducted 243 merchant ship boardings and inspected over 3 million tons of cargo. The ship received a Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation for this performance.

In February 1993 the frigate participated in Operation Able Manner, in support of migration interdiction efforts off Haiti, receiving the Coast Guard Special Operations Service Ribbon for developing baseline procedures for conducting mass lifesaving operations.

In 1994, Aubrey Fitch carried out two deployments to Haiti in support of Operation Uphold Democracy, where the crew boarded over 50 ships to enforce economic sanctions against the government and provided security and search-and-rescue support for operations within Port-au-Prince Harbor.

In the summer of 1995, the frigate sailed to Europe both to conduct NATO training exercises and to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Atlantic and the end of the war in Europe.

From September 1996 to March 1997, Aubrey Fitch conducted her last operational deployment as part of Standing Naval Force Atlantic, during which she visited fourteen ports ranging between Gydnia, Poland west to Faslane, Scotland, and south to Lisbon, Portugal.

Decommissioned on 12 December 1997, Aubrey Fitch was  stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 31 May 1999.   A contract for her scrapping went to Metro Machine Ltd., Philadelphia, Pa., on 11 March 2004, which completed the dismantling by 19 May 2005.

Robert J. Cressman (Biography)

Raymond A. Mann (History)

Updated, 21 September 2022

Published: Wed Sep 21 23:26:15 EDT 2022