Saturday, March 2, 2013

And Which “Big E” Was the First To Have “N” Associated With Her “CV” Designation?

The USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) completed her final voyage last fall. She will end her fifty-plus-year career as scrap. Outside the rather dubious end of being lost at sea, I’m not sure of an appropriate fate for an outmoded platform short of making a museum out of her. That would require a sponsor, and she would certainly be expensive to maintain. Using tax-payers’ dollars would, in this Tea-Partier’s mind, be inappropriate. Me? I would happily make annual donations to that cause, but it’s something I’d do on my own—and it would take a lot of “me’s”. Still, it’s a sad day for the United States Navy and for the Americans who know their nation’s history and the history of its military. Though indirect, the ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) played an important role in my life. 

I first learned of her near the end of my third-grade school year. There was an article about her in my Weekly Reader (do elementary schools still have those things?). Anyway, that should have been 1959. In the article she was under construction and would be, at completion, three football fields long. Now I didn’t know do-diddly-squat about aircraft carriers, or any ships for that matter, but I did know a little about football and a football field was long—and we were talking “three” football fields! The first thing I, Weekly Reader in hand, told my daddy when he came home that night was about that ship—he knew about football fields, too—I was a daddy’s girl, and we loved Ole Miss together. 

He acknowledged the name ENTERPRISE and immediately took control of the conversation. Once, he told me, he’d served on an ENTERPRISE. I can still remember my disappointment that my massive ship had been overshadowed by his knowledge of another ENTERPRISE. I asked, “But was it three football fields long?” 

“No,” he answered, “but she was big in other ways. Let me tell you about her.” 

And being daddy’s girl, I listened.  

I didn’t stop with his war stories. I augmented what he told me with research of my own. By the time I began high school, I knew the entire history of the war in the Pacific from studying the exploits of his ENTERPRISE (CV-6) from her fortuitous late arrival at Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 (she’d been due at 0730 on the morning of the 7th) until she returned to Bremerton in 1945 after Tomi Zai flew his Japanese Zero down her number one elevator shaft at Okinawa. In earlier battles, in a war made for aircraft carriers and a Navy with dwindling numbers of the crucial platform, her damage control crews patched worse damage while evading Japanese bombers so she could recover her returning aircraft, and those of her sunken sisters. Aircraft is the carrier’s primary weapon, its purpose. The seasoned pilots, even if one is able to set the human aspect aside, are equally valuable. The loss of aircraft and pilots, after completing their sorties, due to the lack of a flight deck to land on, means the devastating loss of an offensive weapon system. But when Tomi Zai hit ENTERPRISE in 1945 she wasn’t just one of one or one of two carriers in the Pacific. The industrial might of the United States, which she’d played a critical role in defending, had by then put other carriers to sea and damaged ladies such as she could go home for repair. The war ended with her in the repair docks in Bremerton and my father home in Braxton, Mississippi on leave. 

From the age of seventeen when he’d hunkered down on a seaplane ramp on Ford Island that fateful Sunday morning in 1941 (he didn’t transfer to ENTERPRISE until February 1942) until the age of twenty-one when the ENTERPRISE was knocked out of the war in August 1945, Charles Russell fought in twenty of twenty-two major Pacific battles. With the end of the war, (mirroring the future history of her namesake) CV-6, too, became outmoded. Back-fitting a flight deck meant for F-4s, F-6s, Dauntlesses and Devastators to take jet aircraft was impractical and unnecessary. I can remember reading the end of Admiral Stafford’s book The Big E when she was being cut up for scrap and crying as bitterly as I had when Jack the dog died at the beginning of the second Little House on the Prairie novel (Hey! I was eight). I never read another word of any Little House book after that. 

Despite my youthful grief, I didn’t “shut the book” on the United States Navy, because, after all, there was a bittersweet epilogue. At the same time chunks of the old ENTERPRISE were being hauled away as scrap in New Jersey, the United States’ first nuclear carrier was being built in Newport News, Virginia—the same yard where CV-6 had been built over thirty years before. The pride of the fleet, she was christened with its most decorated name.  

I joined my daddy’s Navy out of college. I was an officer, he’d been a boatswain. I stayed for twenty, he for seven. But I never fought in the first damn battle, much less twenty, and that’s not counting Pearl Harbor 

And now I’m all teary-eyed again. When I read in the Patriot Post last fall ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) was making her last deployment, the news momentarily took my breath away. No, I didn’t break down in tears, not yet, but I haven’t read anything about trucks carrying great chunks of her away to the scrap heap, either—but this time there’s no bittersweet epilogue. 

My Navy without an ENTERPRISE is as strange to me as a president who tells the Navy brass that its requirement for 315 ships will be met with 285 and informs his opponent (in front of the nation) that those numbers will work because we now have submarines and aircraft carriers, which makes how the Navy does things different. Right, if he intends to leave defense of the Pacific Rim to his new friends in Moscow and Beijing.

I fear, given his lack of historical reference and disrespect for all things military, President Obama will foolishly sacrifice our strategic advantage in pursuit of delusional ideas vis-à-vis ruthless opponents who do not suffer anything in the way of delusion. What they do suffer is the lack of strategic advantage, which past generations of Americans have denied them at great sacrifice to themselves. These disadvantages our leader is purposefully eradicating for…. Gee, I’m not sure why a “leader” would do anything so foolish to his people, and I’m not convinced ours knows. The only thing more pathetic than Romney not challenging the man’s flippant remark about carriers (been around since the 1920s) and submarines (made the scene during the War Between the States and came into their own during World War I) is the fact that Obama said something so ignorant to begin with.  

Oh, and in answer to the question asked in my title—it was the old ENTERPRISE. In December 1944 she set sail as the first carrier certified for night operations, dubbed USS ENTERPRISE, CV(N)-6.
Thanks for reading.

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