by Colin Babb
On the day of Enterprise’s commissioning, 25 November 1961, the era of manned space flight was precisely 227 days old, the Berlin Wall was still under construction, Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean was the number one song, and Vietnam was still an obscure country unknown to most Americans. The average personal income in the United States was $5,315, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had been in theaters for about a month, and future president Barack Obama was almost four months old. Many of the parents of the Sailors would be the last to serve aboard Enterprise were either children or not even born.
A few days past 51 years later, on 1 December 2012, USS Enterprise (CVN 65) ended a half-century’s worth of service as thousands paid tribute to the U.S. Navy’s oldest and most storied aircraft carrier. In the intervening years, Enterprise participated in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deployed multiple times to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and projected air power and influence in crises, conflicts, and wars ranging from Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and the Persian Gulf. The ship served in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets during its career, made 25 deployments (three of them around the world), and ultimately traveled more than one million nautical miles. Enterprise starred in several movies such as Top Gun and Hunt for Red October, and was even the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry’s fictional starship in Star Trek.
Some 12,000 current and former crew members, their families, and others gathered during the ship’s inactivation ceremony to say farewell to the “Big E.” Among those present were the Chief of Naval Operations, nine of 23 former commanding officers, and thousands of the 100,000 Sailors who at some time or another served aboard Enterprise. By way of recorded video message, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the name Enterprise will be passed on to CVN 80, the third Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, expected to be in service sometime on or after 2025.
“Enterprise is a special ship and crew, and it was special long before I got here,” said Capt. William C. Hamilton Jr., the 23rd and final commanding officer, during the ceremony. “Before I took command of this ship, I learned the definition of ‘enterprise,’ which is ‘an especially daring and courageous undertaking driven by a bold and adventurous spirit.’ Fifty-one years ago, this ship was every bit of that definition.”
“Here we are 51 years later,” he continued, “celebrating the astonishing successes and accomplishments of this engineering marvel that has roamed the seas for more than half the history of Naval Aviation—daring, courageous, bold, and adventurous indeed.”
Enterprise continued to provide frontline service right up to the end, returning from its final seven-and-a-half-month deployment on 4 November after having launched more than 8,000 sorties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and exercises with 5th and 6th Fleets. Enterprise’s final air wing, CVW-1, consisted of: the VFA-11 Red Rippers, VFA-136 Knighthawks, VFA-211 Fighting Checkmates, VMFA-251 Thunderbolts, VAW-123 Screwtops, VAQ-137 Rooks, VRC-40 Rawhides, and HS-11 Dragonslayers.
Despite Enterprise’s status as a historic ship, the Navy has determined that turning the vessel into a museum would be prohibitively expensive because of the significant alterations to the hull necessary once the ship’s eight nuclear reactors are removed. Enterprise will be defueled and towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (scheduled for 2017) for dismantlement and recycling. Currently, the only nuclear-powered ships ever successfully converted into museums have been relatively small vessels: the Soviet/Russian icebreaker Lenin and the submarines USS Nautilus (ex-SSN 571), HMS Valiant, and HMS Courageous.
In another, smaller ceremony on 30 November, several hundred veterans and their friends and families joined together on the flight deck to commemorate one of the single most important events in Enterprise’s history—the 14 January 1969 fire that killed 27 Sailors and wounded 314 more. While the public face of Enterprise for many may have been the grinning visages and aerial antics of Maverick and Goose on the big screen, for those who knew the carrier best it was the fire that defined the true nature of the ship and its crews.
The fire was the third and last of the major carrier fires among ships off Vietnam during the 1960s. Caused by the accidental explosion of a MK-32 Zuni rocket, the fire’s subsequent investigation resulted in improved ordnance that cannot be detonated as a result of flame or heat alone, as well as new firefighting regulations that have improved both the maintenance of water pressure aboard ships and the training of sailors in firefighting techniques. Quoting officers who had participated in that investigation, Hamilton noted that something else was learned in the aftermath of the fire: the true caliber of the sailors aboard that day.
“There was uncommon valor in the attitude that the deck crewmen had in manning their hoses and going back into it,” said Hamilton. “When an explosion would cut half of them down, additional people would appear, re-man the hoses, and go back into the area of the fire.” Despite the fact that many of the hoses used to fight the fire had inadequate water pressure—some producing a stream of water only six to 10 feet long—crews continued to fight the fire anyway, and saved the ship.
Though now 43 years older, the men who helped fight that fire in 1969 were much the same ages then as the last Enterprise crew members are now. Although Enterprise has aged, throughout its history the ship has always been a home to young men and (now) women. Their time on the carrier is at an end, but all of them will go on to careers on other ships, squadrons, and shore stations—so inactivation was both an ending and beginning.
DCFN Morgan Potapenko was one of the last sailors to be posted aboard the ship, one of a group of six who arrived aboard three months before Enterprise’s inactivation. Arriving aboard ship on a COD after an interminable flight from Norfolk, Spain, Sicily, and Bahrain, Potapenko was thrown into her first ship at the tail end of a deployment. The significance of when and where she was wasn’t readily apparent. “When I got on the ship people were like, ‘So how was your ride?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, good, I made it here in one piece.’”
Recognizing that these sailors would not be able to receive their surface warfare pins in the normal six-month timeframe, the commanding officer made an exception and Potapenko was able to get her pin as an Enterprise Sailor in two months.
“I feel like it’s a good way to learn how a ship actually works because it has older parts,” she said. “I go down to a pump room and have to turn on an eductor to get water out of a space the old-fashioned way as opposed to new ships, you just press a button and the eductor goes.”
Although CVN 65 will go under the breaker’s torch, Enterprise will live on in name in another ship and in the minds of the sailors that once called it home. A little of bit of Enterprise will go with all of them. Although Potapenko got to spend only a brief time aboard, she now knows what it means to have been a part of the crew of the Navy’s oldest active ship.
“It’s kind of an honor,” she said, “because not many people can say they decommissioned the oldest ship in the Navy, so it has its benefits.”