There's a good chance that if you were to take a guess as to which warship was the most decorated ship in US Navy history, you'd probably get it wrong. In fact, you'd probably be shocked to learn that this vessel never once fired a shot in anger, despite being armed at all times throughout its career. If you're confused now, that's good... that's exactly the way the Navy wanted it, at least while the USS Parche was still in active service during the Cold War and beyond.
When construction began on the Parche in 1970, nobody, not even the Mississippi shipbuilders toiling away at bringing the vessel to life, had any idea about what their project would eventually become. Indeed, Parche was just another hunter/killer nuclear submarine, designed to tail and destroy enemy surface and underwater combatants with its deadly loadout of torpedoes. Ordered as part of the Sturgeon class, it was commissioned in 1974 and served for two years in the Atlantic Fleet in its originally-intended role.
In 1976, Parche was moved to the Pacific fleet and modified for the first time. Not much is publicly known about this initial retrofit, but the submarine's service exploits fell out of the public eye very quickly. As it turns out, the Navy selected Parche to support the National Underwater Reconnaissance Office — a highly secretive joint partnership between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Navy.
USS Parche underway near San Diego(US Navy photo by PHC Jones)
Over the next few years, Parche's mission set rapidly evolved from functioning as a typical run-of-the-mill attack submarine, to a ghost-like spy submarine, outfitted with monitoring gear, reconnaissance, and surveillance systems. The submarine force is often known as the "silent service" due to the fact that submarines work best when undetected. NURO and the Navy took this a step further with crews assigned to the Parche, swearing them to absolute secrecy, owing to the nature of their command's job.
By the end of the 1970s, Parche had already made multiple trips into the Sea of Okhotsk, along with the USS Halibut and the USS Seawolf, to wiretap Soviet communications cables as part of Operation Ivy Bells. These wiretaps, undetected until a National Security Agency leak in the mid-80s, proved to be extremely invaluable in picking up Soviet military intelligence. The Parche also assisted with recovering the fragments of Soviet anti-shipping rockets, so that the Navy could analyze them and develop countermeasures to safeguard its own vessels.
Parche, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, underwent a number of additional overhauls that beefed up its surveillance apparatus, adding cameras and an elongated hull to make room for more gear and a larger crew complement, among other things. Like the USS Seawolf, the Parche was given a set of "skegs," or underwater skids, earlier on. These skegs allowed it to sit on the ocean floor while divers moved in and out of the hull of the submarine on wiretap and debris recovery missions.
The preserved sail of the USS Parche in Portland, Oregon, bearing its awards.(Clemens Vasters)
By the early 2000s, Parche had gotten too old for its missions. The Sturgeon-class was already almost fully retired from the Navy, having been replaced by the Los Angeles and Seawolf classes of hunter/killer nuclear boats. Eventually, in 2004, the decision was made to pull the aging spy submarine, euphemistically referred to as a "special projects platform," from active service for its long-overdue retirement.
After around 30 years of service, Parche was decommissioned and scrapped, though her sail with its markings was removed and placed on display in Bremerton, Washington. Today, the USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class submarine, serves the same purpose and operates under the same conditions that Parche did, functioning as America's premier spy sub.
Even though Parche's exploits will remain hidden from public sight for decades to come, one only has to look at the marks that denote 9 Presidential Unit Citations, 10 Navy Unit Commendations and 13 Navy Expeditionary Medals, to know that Parche served her country faithfully in the most daring of circumstances throughout her hushed-up career.