Defense Media Network

Interview With USS Constitution Commanding Officer Cmdr. Matt Bonner

Our sailors are the face of the Navy

There are a lot of things to keep you busy to keep the ship looking good and performing her mission as a place for people to learn about their Navy. You’re the 72nd in the line of command here. But do you sometimes, once in a while, think back or imagine what it must have been like in the age of sail, and think of your predecessors and just imagine?

I look at that plaque outside the commanding officer’s cabin see the names that made our American Navy great, and you say, “I’m commanding the same ship that Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, Charles Stewart, and Thomas MacDonough commanded.” You can’t help but be moved by that.

I do. There are times at the end of the day, when you’re getting ready to walk out the door to head home, and you glance at the ship and picture what it must have been like in the age of sail with 500 people on board. Last summer as I stood on the shrouds as we were getting ready to sail, and I kept thinking about what it must have been like to be Isaac Hull, getting ready to sail into battle against Guerriere. I was struck with this feeling that “this is what it’s about.” I look at that plaque outside the commanding officer’s cabin see the names that made our American Navy great, and you say, “I’m commanding the same ship that Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, Charles Stewart, and Thomas MacDonough commanded.” You can’t help but be moved by that. I read a lot about their experiences, in their own words or their biographers. I listen to the crew, because they have researched crewmembers that have served on board. One of my quartermasters talks about a quartermaster in 1814 from Marblehead. And in when they were trying to outrun the British, he snuck them into Marblehead Harbor underneath the guns at Fort Sewall. And they actually had to carry him up on deck because he had been wounded, and he was weak from scurvy, but he knew his way in a very rocky harbor and it’s one of the things that helped save the ship. Our sailors today look back at some of these crewmembers from the past and they find those tales that relate to them. I think that’s what bonds them. The difference between a good ship and a bad ship doesn’t come down to how old or how new it is; it’s the crew. Constitution is a beautiful ship. If the sailors weren’t here, and it was just moored here at the dock, you’d look at it and be tremendously impressed. But what brings that ship to life are those sailors, and they carry on a legacy that started on that decks when the ship first hit the water in 1797, and is carried through today. They’re not going to take the ship into battle against the British, or chase Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa. But there’s no difference between them and the sailors that did. They bring that legacy. And so when you have a sailor telling you the story, it’s moving because you can picture yourself back there – the battle and the smoke and the noise. And they’re basically carrying that legacy. Our naval aviators feel the same way, from the Battle of Midway, to Korea to Vietnam, to the Gulf War, and to what they’re doing now. Our sailors have come a long way in terms of education and different things, but they’re part of that legacy and they bring that ship alive. I think the crew that took her into battle would come aboard and look at today’s crew and go, “They’re pretty impressive.”

USS Constitution

A double rainbow forms over USS Constitution after an evening thunderstorm, June 17, 2013, in Charlestown, Mass. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Peter D. Melkus

I was told before I got here that the ship talks to you. The ship talks to everybody differently. I’ve had – as every CO [commanding officer] does – when it’s a little tough in command; and maybe you’re faced with a tough decision, and you’re not sure what to do. I find myself walking out to the ship and walking her decks. And usually there’s kind of a calm that comes over you, a peace, and it makes the decision that much clearer. Now I can’t say that’s the ghost of captains past saying, “Here’s what you do, captain,” but there’s something about going out there; the ship lets you know.


It’s a remarkable piece of technology, too.

Joshua Humphries was kind of made fun of for his design. People thought she was too big; she wasn’t going float well; she wasn’t going to sail well; it just wasn’t going to work. The original six frigates were the most expensive things in the federal budget. She was behind schedule, she was over budget. Defense procurement hasn’t changed much in 215 years. You can draw those parallels to some of our modern ships, whether you want to talk about the Arleigh Burke-class of guided-missile destroyers, or you want to talk about the littoral combat ship, the LCS. Our technology consistently proves the naysayers wrong. There’s 215 years of proof that Humphries built a pretty good design that took on the world’s premiere navy and won, and forced them to change their tactics. She’s a unique piece of our heritage. People ask about her role in today’s Navy? Why – in this era of austere budgets – do we keep Constitution around? This is where our legacy started. She exemplifies why America built a navy and why our Navy is important today. This ship shares that message with the American public. If you come to Boston and you happen to find yourself at the Navy Yard and you walk on board, there will be a sailor who will tell you a story. You will walk away at the end of it going, “Wow, I get it.” We get people from other countries who get it.


I think that the Constitution has become the soul of the Navy.

In the 1830s, the Navy was trying to find out what kind of shape she was in, and there was talk of her being scrapped. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his poem Old Ironsides. In the 1920s, she needed a lot of work and the Navy couldn’t afford it, you have the pennies campaign to raise money to fix the ship. After that the navy takes her on a three-coast tour to thank the American public. Throughout her life, she earned her stripes defending our way of life, and in grateful appreciation, she’s what spurred on America. She’s named for our namesake document. When you read the Constitution and what it’s about and what it says, and then you look at the ship – she’s the embodiment of that document. And I think that’s why she’s so special. One of her COs, William Bainbridge, talked about what the ship meant to him. He said, “To have commanded the Constitution is a signal honor, to be a member of her crew in no matter how humble a capacity is an equal one.”

Old Ironsides

USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute in honor of America’s 237th birthday during the ship’s annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise. More than 500 guests were under way aboard “Old Ironsides” for a three-hour tour of Boston Harbor in celebration of Independence Day 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Sonar Technician (Submarine) 2nd Class Thomas Rooney

He went on to say that her commander in the future, much like in the past, shall never see that her flag gets lowered. That’s an important piece because she does represent our Navy, and sometimes people don’t understand what it truly means until they come up here and they set foot on the deck. During Heritage Weeks, when you have the chief selects come on board, and with VIPs and flag officers, and they know naval history, they realize they’re standing on the same deck as the heroes that went before us. That’s what makes the ship so unique.


About how many people a day visit the ship?

We see about 500,000 visitors a year. On a busy Saturday in July, we’ve seen upwards of 4,000 people. On a Tuesday in April, you might have from couple hundred to a thousand. It really depends on the weather, and what’s going on. In the summer season, it’s not unusual to have about 3,000 to 4,000 a day. That’s in an eight-hour period. So, they’re busy.

Every day I look out the window and go, “Wow! I get to command Constitution. This is cool.”

During the winter we’re only open four days a week and then during the summer we’re open six days. People always show up on the day we’re closed and are disappointed. But we need to have a day to be able to do maintenance and training. There is no charge. We’re all active duty military, so it’s your tax dollars at work.


Thank you. It’s always fun to come into this place.

It’s been very personally and professionally rewarding. I don’t think anything I do in my naval career will really compare. Every day I look out the window and go, “Wow! I get to command Constitution. This is cool.”

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...