Over its three-decade existence in the Navy, the USS Grand Canyon went on a dozen tours as a tender ship for the mighty Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.
The USS Grand Canyon was a ship tender that served in the Mediterranean over a 21-year period. (Photo courtesy of GCNP Museum Collection)
Most of the time, the ship served in a peacetime capacity with its sailors visiting places like Cannes, France and Naples, Italy. There was even a stop at Norway in the fall of 1957. But the USS Grand Canyon also took part in a few of history’s most tense moments — the Suez Canal incident in 1956 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Darrell Fields, who served on the ship from 1952-56, was at Grand Canyon Sunday morning to donate two photos and two plaques to the park’s museum collection.
"It was quite exciting to hear from you," the museum’s Colleen Hyde told Fields. "I know this will interest a lot of people."
Hyde said the museum collection may try to arrange a display in the front area of its building.
"I’m happy you’re going to accept these items," Fields said. "I hope that one day, the general public can see them."
The USS Grand Canyon dates back to April 27, 1945 when it was launched by the Todd-Pacific Shipyard Inc., in Tacoma, Wash. The ship was commissioned April 5, 1946, with Capt. W.D. Hoover in command. The ship was 492 feet in length with a beam of 69-6 and draw of 27-6. The armament included eight 40-mm guns and 12 20-mm guns.
After "shakedown," a Naval term for test run, the USS Grand Canyon made its way from the West Coast through the Panama Canal and up to Newport, R.I., its home base for several years.
Later that same year, the ship left Newport for its inaugural tour with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. The Grand Canyon would have 11 more tours over the next 21 years, the last in 1967.
Fields, one of 250 members of the USS Grand Canyon Sailors Organization, said there were about 900 officers and crew on board. In Navy lingo, the ship was classified as an AD-28, which translates to ship tender.
The role of a ship tender was to provide maintenance to the 20 to 25 destroyers in the Sixth Fleet. There was an extensive machine shop on board and parts could be manufactured to fit any particular need. There were also deep-sea divers who would go underwater to make repairs.
Fields served as a storekeeper while on the Grand Canyon. But one of his favorite things to do was fire a machine gun.
"Mine was a 20-mm machine gun and I loved it," Fields said. "That was a great gun."
Besides its maintenance role, the Grand Canyon would also resupply destroyers with mines and torpedoes.
The ship had a role in two Cold War incidents during its service. In the summer of 1956, tension heightened on the Suez Canal when Egyptian president Gamal Abdal Nasser nationalized it and set up the Egyptian Canal Authority to replace the existing privately-owned company.
By October, events led to the an invasion of Egypt from Israel with air support from France and Great Britain. Within a few days, France and England sent in armed forces to retake the Suez Canal.
During this time, the USS Grand Canyon was on her eighth tour. By Oct. 20, the ship was taking part in fleet exercises as the flagship and visited ports in Sicily and Italy.
The Suez problem subsided when the United Nations intervened. An armistice materialized in early November and a U.N. emergency force replaced the British and French troops. After the crisis ended, the Grand Canyon headed for Cannes, France, in time for the Christmas holidays.
The ship was also involved in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The Grand Canyon had completed a Mediterranean tour earlier in the year and was sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to start tending ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Fleet.
This assignment came during the missile crisis and subsequent quarantine. Thus, the Grand Canyon played a role in a demonstration of the mobility and versatility of American sea power during the Cold War. The Grand Canyon left the area late in the year, arriving at Newport, R.I., in December.
The USS Grand Canyon was one of a handful of ship tenders named after national parks. There was also a USS Yellowstone, USS Sierra and USS Yosemite, which was often referred to as the "Yo-Yo" by those in uniform.
With many officers and crew members of the Grand Canyon still around, there are reunions from time to time. The majority of those who served on the ship live on the East Coast and so most reunions take place in that area.
However, Fields said it would be nice to have a reunion right here at the real Grand Canyon.
"I’m trying to arrange one day to have a reunion here in 2005 or 2006," Fields said. "Most sailors tend to be back on the East Coast, but maybe we can have at least some people here for a special dinner."
Fields said he knows of a half dozen or so veterans of the Grand Canyon living here in Arizona. Fields lives in Tempe with his wife, Marilyn.
In 1971, the Grand Canyon was reclassified from a ship tender to a repair ship. It continued in service for another seven years until being decommissioned in 1978.
Does the USS Grand Canyon exist anywhere now?
"We’re shaving with it now," Fields said. "It went to the scrap heap."
More donations involving the USS Grand Canyon could be coming to the museum collection in the future. Fields offered to see if he could obtain various items, such as things made on the actual ship, photos of men working in the machine shop or even a 20-mm or 40-mm round of ammo. Fields added that the ship’s bell could also be a possible donation.