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As Long as We Remember...

December 5, 2012

“BIG E” Retired – Never To Be Forgotten

Norman M. Covert

Realization of age, not necessarily wisdom, creeps up when one least expects. Such awakenings may appear in the daily course of events. For instance, Sunday morning’s news dispatches recorded the U. S. Navy had decommissioned USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in ceremonies at Norfolk (Va.) Naval Operations Base.


My confusion was that the huge modern aircraft carrier was commissioned in November 1961 – could it have been 52 years ago? Yes! She shares billing with USS Constitution as the oldest commissioned vessels in the fleet.


The ceremonies were conducted one week before the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 – two days from now.


Her predecessor, USS Enterprise (CV6), delivered to the Navy in 1936 by Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding, was at sea when more than 350 Japanese fighter planes and bombers decimated the Pacific Fleet then at anchorage in Hawaii.


It precipitated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war:


“This dastardly attack,” FDR proclaimed within 24 hours, declaring, “…we are in a state of war with the Empire of Japan.”


The lines were long for those who both revered and hated FDR, but you could not accuse him of lack of leadership. He did not hesitate to mobilize the nation in the face of its enemies. He died in April 1945 during his third term, missing victory in Europe by a few weeks and victory over Japan by four months.


That original “Big E” (CV6) lived to fight another day that balmy Sunday morning, going on to earn its moniker as a result of distinguished battle history in the Pacific.


The modern “Big E” was the only ship of her class, first to be powered by eight nuclear reactors. Her keel was laid at Newport News Shipbuilding in February 1958. She will have gone full circle when her nuclear fuel and reactors are removed and she is ultimately taken apart for scrap – in Newport News.


The massive ship intimidated me from the first moment I walked aboard July 1, 1961. Fresh out of high school, I was hired as a mechanic’s helper, coming to work at 6:30 that morning along with the thousands of others entering the shipyard’s main gate on Washington Avenue. I carried the same lunch box my dad had used when he worked on the USS Essex (CV9) in 1942.


I was to be labor, not management, but the pay was good for a first “real job.” The tool crib armed me with a sharp knife, scissors, trowels, brushes, goggles and a hard hat bearing the number “44,” designating the insulation department.


We insulated pipes and bulkheads overhead and underneath! It was hot, stifling work and the fiberglass material found a home in the perspiration and fabric of the work clothes. It also was character building because I was then small enough to get into tight places. I nearly fell overboard once, and it took one attempt at dumping a bucket's contents to learn about windward and leeward.


In late September 1961 all hands were mobilized to insulate the steam powered catapults, which would send its deadly fighter planes on their sorties into enemy territory. USS Enterprise was taken on its shakedown trials in October, coming home with a broom lashed to the topmost point of her “island.” That signified she had exceeded every challenge. She was commissioned in November 1961.


Her first real mission came nearly a year later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy dispatched Enterprise and three other carriers as part of the daring blockade. The fleet barred Russian ships from delivering their deadly cargo of missiles, which would threaten Florida and the United States.


Enterprise’s distinguished service saw her in waters off South Korea not long after capture of the USS Pueblo by a North Korean patrol boat in January 1968.


Tragedy struck on January 14, 1969, as she was operating off the coast of South Vietnam. A rocket, loaded on an F-4 Phantom, exploded spreading fire and more ammunition and fuel explosions across the crowded flight deck. Fires were extinguished with some effort, but not before 27 men died and 314 were injured in the holocaust; 15 aircraft were destroyed.


Following extensive repairs at Pearl Harbor, she resumed patrols in the Western Pacific and Tonkin Gulf.


She has since distinguished herself on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf as part of Operations Desert Shield/Storm and the War on Terrorism. It is a 52-year career worthy of recognition.


I’d like to think I played some small part in her success, one fiberglass batt at a time. Had it not been for crew members I might still be wandering her passageways.


Bon voyage, USS Enterprise. We salute you, officers and crew.


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