I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’m going to feel when the decommissioned aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is taken out to sea for her final cruise on the way to be torn apart for razor blades.
The grand old warship sailed into the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington and was informally retired on January 31, 2009. The carrier that protected America and made history for many years was decommissioned on May 12, 2009.
As I’ve noted here before, I've had a long association with the Kitty Hawk.
I grew up in South Philadelphia not far from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the USS Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1961. My late father, a former WWII Navy chief and UDT frogman, took me to see the commissioning of the new aircraft carrier. I recall the grand ceremony that launched the new, majestic warship, with banners flying, bands playing and people cheering. (See the above photo).
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970 when I was 17. I served aboard the Kitty Hawk in 1970-1971 during the carrier’s 5th Vietnam War cruise. The Navy recruitment advertisements at the time stated that the Navy was not just a job, it was an adventure.
And so it was for me.
In between line periods on “Yankee Station” off the coast of North Vietnam, where our aircraft flew combat sorties, the aircraft carrier made port of calls to Subic Bay in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Sasebo, Japan.
I’ll never forget this WESTPAC (Western Pacific) cruise, and I’ll especially never forget the frequent visits to Subic Bay in the Philippines (called “Septic Bay” by a Navy wit), where I was a happy young sailor in the wide-open sin city of Olongapo.
Olongapo was like a modern-day Dodge City with girls, saloons, musical cover bands, cheap booze, seedy hotels, and fist, gun and knife fights on the streets.
In 1987 the USS Kitty Hawk returned to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) overhaul.
I took my wife and infant daughter to the welcoming ceremony, which brought back memories of the carrier’s commissioning in 1961.
At the time, I was serving as the civilian administrative officer of a Defense Department command in Philadelphia. As the administrative officer, I oversaw security, safety, public affairs and other support programs for the command.
Our DoD command oversaw many of the contractors who worked on the Kitty Hawk's overhaul, so in my public affairs role I organized several visits to the Kitty Hawk for our military and civilian employees who were the contract administrators, quality assurance inspectors, engineers and others who dealt with the Kitty Hawk's SLEP program.
Later, as a writer, I would write about the Kitty Hawk for newspapers and magazines.
Like the commissioning ceremony, the cruise to Southeast Asia, and the welcoming back ceremony, I have many happy memories of the Kitty Hawk – and a few unhappy ones.
I recall that after Boot Camp in 1970, I received my orders to the Kitty Hawk. I flew to Seattle, Washington and then transferred to a small plane for a quick flight to Bremerton, Washington and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
With memories of the new carrier that I saw at the commissioning in my head, I was somewhat disappointed as I looked up at the ship and walked along the port side of the ship tied to the pier.
The aircraft carrier looked to be in major disarray. The Kitty Hawk was undergoing an overhaul and the ship was being taken apart and put back together.
But things soon looked up. Rather than being assigned to mess cook duties, a rough and dirty job, like other new sailors, a petty officer in personnel who hailed from Philadelphia took pity on me and assigned me to Special Services. I performed a variety of duties there, but my main job was to assist in the running the shipboard TV and radio cable throughout the ship. The Kitty Hawk was the first warship to have cable TV and radio.
After some weeks aboard the carrier, I took a break one day and left the ship to go for a hot dog and a soda. When I returned to the pier sometime later, I discovered that the carrier was gone.
I was in shock. I sat down on a shipping crate, looked at the vacant pier and pondered my fate. I heard much talk about the carrier sailing to San Deigo once the overhaul was completed, but I didn’t recall anyone saying that this day was the day.
I thought of what the penalty was for missing ship’s movement, which I knew was a serious offense. I was worried. I was a seaman apprentice, “lower than whale shit,” as the saying goes. Could I be busted in rank? Tossed in the brig? Kicked out the Navy?
But mostly I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be ridiculed and thought of as a stupid “Boot.”
I thought of myself as a street-smart South Philly kid, and although I had only been in the Navy a few months, I thought I knew a lot about the Navy. I learned a good bit about the Navy from my Navy veteran father, my many conversations with former and active-duty sailors, and from my voracious reading about the Navy.
Yet here I was sitting on the dock of the bay like the Otis Reading song, wondering where my ship had gone.
I was about to turn myself in to the first Navy chief I saw, when I saw the Kitty Hawk coming back.
The tugboats helped the carrier return to the pier and back in, stern first. Apparently, the carrier had pulled out to go to wider water so the ship could maneuver and then return to the pier and be tied up on the starboard side.
As my terror subsided, a joke ran though my head - the ship's captain realized I was not aboard, and he turned the carrier around to come back and get his missing seaman apprentice.
I then thought of the expression, “missing the boat.”
For a time, I thought I did in fact miss the boat.
I would not tell anyone this story for 20 years.
You can read my other sea stories, vignettes, short stories and humor pieces via the below link: