A final goodbye to the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier

By Courtney Mabeus
The Virginian-Pilot


The final watch was already secured when the young sailor approached the older one in the frigid hangar bay of the now ex-USS Enterprise on Friday morning.


“Thanks for keeping her operating,” the older man said. “You’ve done a great job.”

“Thanks for getting her going and, you know, keeping her running for all that time you were here,” the younger sailor responded.

Nearly 50 years may have separated the men’s service aboard The Big “E”, which was decommissioned Friday during a ceremony at Newport News Shipbuilding, but those decades that the Enterprise served set the standard for carriers, sailors and shipbuilders who followed.

“Her sea stories become our sea stories and her history is our history,” Rear Adm. Bruce Lindsey, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said Friday.

The Enterprise – CVN 65 – was the eighth Navy ship to carry that name. It was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Its keel was laid Feb. 4, 1958 – exactly 59 years ago – at Newport News Shipbuilding. Commissioned in November 1961, it responded to the Cuban missile crisis a year later.

It has served in nearly every conflict since and was the first to launch strikes against targets in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, diverting from its transit home to steam overnight to the Arabian Sea.

“It has always made records,” James Voorhies said Friday. He was assigned aboard the Enterprise from 1983 to 1987 and now serves as president of its association. “Even today it made a record. It was the very first nuclear aircraft carrier to be decommissioned.”

As many as 250,000 sailors served aboard the Enterprise.

Ray Godfrey, that older sailor who was approached by the younger one Friday, was among the Enterprise’s first crew, known as a plank owner. Now 77, Godfrey was a 21-year-old machinist’s mate when he stepped on board in 1961 to work in the nuclear spaces. He served until 1966.

Godfrey returned in 2012 for the ship’s last homecoming and this week helped pass out commemorative coins to its remaining crew from the Navy Historical Foundation.

“I was so proud of the Enterprise,” Godfrey said, adding he “realized the importance of what it did.”

The Enterprise’s age showed Friday as it sat in dry dock. Chunks of its gray paint had peeled away from its hull. But The Big “E”’s legacy will live on not only through sea stories and American military milestones but in a physical presence.

A piece of the Enterprise’s steel will be used in the keel of America’s next USS Enterprise, CVN 80, the third in the USS Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers also under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding, Matthew Mulherin, the shipbuilders’ president said.

So while Friday’s ceremony took on the somber tones of a funeral, there was also a bittersweet undercurrent that hinted at things to come.

Capt. Todd Beltz, commander of the Enterprise, said current plans call for the ship to end up at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington. Beltz said while he’d felt a range of emotions Friday, the biggest one was pride.

“Sailors who have all served on this ship, they walk away with pride, and that’s really something special that this ship has generated,” Beltz said.

Godfrey, who lives in Montana, said Friday was the last time he’d likely ever see his old ship. He compared the Enterprise’s decommissioning to selling off an old car.

“You gotta bite the bullet and say it’s done, it’s over with,” Godfrey said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking, but you gotta realize that it’s going to make way for the new one to come in. You can’t have two of them.”

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