Posted by Cmdr. Glynn Smith on behalf of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp.
Sailors love their ships, and while it’s probably best demonstrated in how we care for them, it’s probably most evident in the ceremonies we conduct during their service lives. But one ceremony in particular brings together the best of both: relieving the watch as Queen of the Fleet.
Today, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of presiding over a relief of watch ceremony in Atlantic Beach, NC, as Coast Guard Cutter Smilax (WLIC 315), became the latest Queen of the Fleet. It was a joy to see the ship’s hull numbers painted in gold, a distinction that goes with this title.
The Queen of the Fleet is the ship with the earliest date of commission into active Coast Guard service. Smilax became the oldest commissioned cutter when Acushnet, previous Queen of the fleet, was decommissioned from service on Mar. 10. Smilax was commissioned on Nov. 1, 1944, as World War II raged on in both the European and Pacific theaters.
Built at Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works in Dubuque, Iowa, more than 66 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt was president, Smilax has remained in good running condition. Then Seventh District Commander Rear Adm. R.W. Durfey, in an effort to dissuade his superiors from decommissioning Smilax in 1977, wrote, “The Smilax is in good condition and provides excellent mission suitability.” I am proud to say Smilax still does that 34 years later and it’s a testament to the ship’s current and all previous crews.
Smilax also continues to perform a valuable mission, maintaining 1,226 fixed aids to navigation such as lights and range markers and 26 buoys throughout the Outer Banks of North Carolina to help mariners navigate safely. The ship provided similar service to mariners in Florida from 1944 to 1965, and Georgia from 1966 to 1999. The value of this service in preventing the loss of lives, property and damage to the environment over the course of almost 70 years is immeasurable.
Smilax is now only superseded in age among U.S. naval vessels by two sailing ships; USS Constitution, which was commissioned (christened) on Oct. 21, 1797, and Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, which was commissioned on Sept. 17, 1936.
As a U.S. Navy vessel, Constitution does not qualify for Coast Guard Queen of the Fleet and Eagle’s original commissioning date was into the German navy before World War II, which prevents its qualification. After the war, however, Eagle was brought to the U.S. and commissioned into the Coast Guard fleet on May 15, 1946.
This is a significant detail as Smilax is on the leading edge of an aging fleet of ships across the Coast Guard that are becoming harder and more costly to maintain and operate. And Smilax will continue to provide value for the public into the foreseeable future so that we can focus limited funds for new equipment on the more urgent acquisitions of national security cutters, offshore patrol cutters and fast response cutters to protect our nation. Some of Smilax’s greatest service may well begin as a septuagenarian!
Congratulations to Smilax and her crews, and thank you for your service.
Adm. Bob Papp
Commandant and Gold Ancient Mariner