“Today let us, as Americans, honor the American fighting man (and now woman, of course). For it is he –the soldier, the sailor, the Airman, the Marine–who has fought to preserve freedom. It is his valor that has given renewed hope to the free world that by working together in discipline and faith our ideals of freedom will always prevail.” Admiral Forrest P. Sherman
An aircraft carrier is a thing of terrible beauty.
An aircraft carrier is a warship of massive size and capacity for destruction; a seagoing airbase with more people on board than lived in my hometown; ninety five thousand tons of the most powerful weapons on earth. The jewel of any modern battle fleet.
A giant floating target.
The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz was commissioned in 1975. In 1979, Nimitz was the launch site for the failed attempt to rescue U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran. Though the real ship never appeared onscreen, in 1980 she starred in the Pearl Harbor time-travel movie, The Final Countdown. Kirk Douglas was her cinematic Commanding Officer.
On May 26, 1981, I was on my first Nimitz deployment, a standard training exercise in the Atlantic, a Gitmo cruise, Guantanamo Bay. We’d only been out of Norfolk a few days. More importantly, we were going ashore in Ft. Lauderdale in a few more. It was looking like this sailor thing I’d gotten myself into might work out.
But on this balmy night in May, while many shipmates slept, I was hanging out in our Supply-2 berthing, laughing with some of the hardcases. Our space was just a few levels below the flight deck. I‘d started to get used to the takeoffs and landings topside. None of us knew anything unusual was going on up there until the klaxon sounded. Men rushed around grabbing firefighting gear. Everyone donned gas masks. Hatches were secured, shutting those of us in the cook’s living compartment into a suddenly claustrophobic steel box. This procedure ensures watertight integrity. It scares the hell out of an 18 year old underachiever who’d left his Batman cape out of his sea-bag.
This is what happened: Thunderstorms and a dark witching hour haze created problems for aircrews running routine training operations. A marine EA-6B Prowler jetfighter crashed into maintenance equipment and a row of secured aircraft while attempting to land. The Prowler exploded, killing the crew and sending a fireball of metal and fuel rolling across the flight deck. Twenty millimeter ammunition cooked to eruption, hurling shrapnel fragments into the bodies of the men on deck at flash speed.
An AIM-7 Sparrow missile that was buried in smoking debris detonated. A second one went off. Then a third and a fourth. It was like four and a half acres of hell erupted off the coast of Cuba.
There were jet fuel pipes running through our quarters, right next to where I would have been sleeping on a normal night. Every once in a while, the overhead hatch would open. Guys wearing more elaborate protective gear than we had would come down to check for gas leaks and pass scuttlebutt.
Firefighting, rescue, and cleanup procedures lasted throughout the night. We went up to the galley around 0300 to feed people. We passed through the medical deck on our way.
Wish I hadn’t done that.
Fourteen dead, thirty-nine injured.
We returned to Norfolk before the next day was over, unloaded our casualties, and forty eight hours later were back at sea on our ghost ship.
My home for the next thirty months.
And thirty two years later, I offer a moment of silence, a salute, and a toast to my lost shipmates.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy