It’s pretty likely that you have never heard of the US Navy’s most decorated warship. That’s because the Navy did not want you to hear of it while it was in service. What may be more fantastic is that it received all of those decorations without once firing a weapon in attack or defense.
The USS Parche was built in 1970 as a hunter/killer submarine. No one, not even the shipbuilders that worked on it, knew what was in store for this special ship. The Parche was built to be a nuclear submarine which would follow enemy vessels both above and below the sea and then destroy them. Part of the Sturgeon class as built, it received its commission in 1974 and served two years in the Atlantic Fleet as intended.
In 1976, the Parche was retrofitted for the first time. There is not much information about what changed but after the work was complete, the Parche was rarely heard of by the public. The Navy had chosen the Parche to support the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (NURO). NURO was a secretive joint effort between the Navy and the CIA.
The Parche went from being a typical attack ship to becoming a “ghost,” spying on the enemy with advanced monitoring, reconnaissance, and surveillance systems. While the submarine force is referred to as the “silent service” because subs operate best when no one knows where they are, the Navy took this concept to the extreme with the crew of the Parche. Sworn to secrecy, they could tell no one the nature of their missions.
At the end of the 1970s, the Parche had traveled into the Sea of Okhotsk multiple times with the USS Halibut and the USS Seawolf in order to wiretap Soviet communications over the cables running across the seabed. Known as Operation Ivy Bells, the surveillance went undetected until the National Security Agency (NSA) accidentally leaked details of the operation in the mid-1980s.
Along with the invaluable intelligence gained from the wiretaps, the Parche recovered fragments of the USSR’s anti-ship rockets. This allowed the Navy to analyze them and develop countermeasures to protect US ships.
The Parche received numerous additional retrofits throughout the 1980s and 1990s. These overhauls improved the sytems used on the ship, adding cameras and a longer hull to fit more equipment and more crew – amongst other things.
The Seawolf and the Parche also received skegs. These legs on the bottom of the ships allowed them to sit directly on the ocean floor and allow divers to exit the vessel to perform their wiretap and debris recovery missions.
In the 2000s, it was determined that the Parche had reached the end of her lifespan. It was already one of the last Sturgeon-class vessels in the Navy – having been replaced by the Los Angeles and Seawolf classes. In 2004, the decision was made to decommission the Parche.
After serving for thirty years, the Parche was scrapped. The sail with her markings was retained and is on display in Bremerton, Washington. The USS Jimmy Carter serves the same purpose as the Parche today.
The Parche received nine Presidential Unit Citations, ten Navy Unit Commendations and thirteen Navy Expeditionary Medals, a total unmatched in the entire history of the US Navy. It will be decades before the public is informed of all that the Parche did while in service. But the number of citations and commendations received during her service is proof that she served her country well.