Carrier Enterprise Moved To Shipyard To Be Stripped


ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE – The Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier took a short ride back to its birthplace Thursday after a half-century of service in America’s wars, hot and cold.

When it departs about three years from now for its last ride, it will be – quite literally – a shell of its former self.

The Enterprise, which was inactivated in December after completing its 25th and final deployment, will be stripped bare and decommissioned at Newport News Shipbuilding, where it was built between 1958 and 1961.

Five tug boats towed the massive ship from Norfolk Naval Station across the Hampton Roads harbor and backed it into the shipyard, nudging it gingerly alongside a pier. The two-mile trip took about three hours.

The dismantling of the carrier was already apparent. Virtually anything that wasn’t bolted or welded in place has already been removed. The hangar bay resembled the site of a giant rummage sale, littered with pallets full of hoses, cables, furniture and filing cabinets. Here and there a stray poster still clung to a stateroom wall.

Eight square openings have been cut through four steel decks, clearing the way for the ship’s nuclear fuel rods to be removed, along with the rest of its remaining innards, during its last stay in Newport News.

More than 100 civilian shipbuilders who worked on the “Big E” over its storied career rode along on Thursday’s transit. For most of them, their involvement with the ship was limited to repairs and overhauls. Four of them, however – still employed at the yard after 50-plus years – actually helped build it.

“Anybody affiliated with the Enterprise should be very proud. I know I am,” said Shirley Langston, 75, who began as an office clerk in the tool room. “It’s a real legend.”

The Enterprise was the only ship in its class. Its propulsion system consisting of eight reactors was never duplicated. Today’s carriers have only two reactors.

Building the ship was a labor of love, said Joe Owens, 72, an electrician: “Workers back then took pride in what they were doing. That’s hard to find anymore.”

Gliding across the harbor on a crystal-clear day, the early-morning sun glinting off the water, the huge vessel’s motion was almost undetectable.

“It was just like this on the initial sea trials,” said Henry Deese, 77, a designer. “If you couldn’t see outside, you didn’t know you were moving.”

L.D. Joyner, 75, was a mold loftsman, making paper and wood molds that were used in fabricating the carrier’s steel plates – “just like making a pattern for a dress,” he said.

Seeing the ship come to the end of its life isn’t easy, Joyner said.

Once it is fully gutted at the shipyard, probably by mid-2016, its shell will be towed around Cape Horn – it’s too wide to fit through the Panama Canal – to the Navy shipyard in Puget Sound, Wash., where it will be cut up for scrap.

“That’s when I plan on retiring,” Joyner said. “When it leaves, I’ll leave.”

First called into action during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Enterprise was a mainstay of U.S. naval power through the Cold War and the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tragedy struck the ship off the coast of Vietnam in 1969 when a rocket attached to a parked fighter jet overheated and exploded, setting off a chain reaction of explosions and fires across the flight deck. The accident killed 28 sailors and injured more than 300.

Capt. William Hamilton, the Enterprise’s last commanding officer, was in first grade when the ship was commissioned in 1961. In remarks to the shipbuilders after the carrier pulled into the yard, he said skippering the ship was “the greatest honor of my professional life.”

Hamilton called the Enterprise the “poster child” for the motto coined by Collis Potter Huntington, the shipyard’s founder, more than a century ago: “We shall build good ships here, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always good ships.”

The vessel lasted more than twice its expected service life. It’s only being retired now, Hamilton joked, because “nobody makes the parts anymore.”

The carrier performed spendidly on its final deployment, Hamilton said, retaining its distinction as the fastest ship in the Navy, capable of cruising at more than 30 knots. Its exact top speed is classified.

“I wanted to see how fast this bad boy would go, and it went just as fast as it used to go,” he said. “We can’t get into classified discussions here, but it was scaring the helmsman, I’ll tell you that.”

Affection for the ship seems equally felt by its sailors and builders alike, Hamilton said.

“So it’s my privilege to deliver her back to you today. With dignity and respect, we put this old warhorse to bed.”

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