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California and the West

A Sea Change

Navy: After 37 years as a San Diego landmark, the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is setting out for a new home port. It will leave an empty space in the city's heart.

July 05, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Right from the start, it was a marriage of like minds: a true-blue Navy town and the Navy's newest, biggest and most fearsome warship.

Thousands of San Diegans lined the shore that morning 37 years ago to watch the mammoth aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk steam slowly and majestically into San Diego Bay to take up residency.

Classes were canceled so students could witness the long-anticipated event. Dozens of pleasure craft trailed the 1,065-foot-long ship as it rounded Ballast Point and entered the bay, which had been newly dredged to accommodate the vessel's deep draft. Fireboats sprayed arcs of water into the air amid a cacophony of sirens, whistles and horns.

The mayor and other dignitaries were at the dock to offer greetings. The morning and evening newspapers splashed the ship's arrival on the front page and quickly dubbed the ship "the queen of the seas." About 35,000 people visited the vessel for a weekend open house.

Now it is nearly four decades later, and on Monday morning the Kitty Hawk will leave San Diego for the open seas. She has done it innumerable times, including on 18 occasions when she was sent on extended deployments into harm's way.

But this time, the ship is not scheduled to return to San Diego. After having North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado as its home port since 1961, the Kitty Hawk is being sent to the U.S. base at Yokosuka, Japan, to replace the carrier Independence, which is being retired.

The mayor and other dignitaries will be on the dock to say goodbye. TV news copters will hover overhead. And by noontime, the remarkable ties between the city and the ship--which became as much a landmark of the San Diego area as the Hotel del Coronado or the San Diego Zoo--will be just a memory.

In a few weeks the nuclear-powered John C. Stennis will arrive in San Diego to succeed the Kitty Hawk as a San Diego-based carrier (and join the carrier Constellation). Whether the Stennis will ever replace the Kitty Hawk in the hearts of many San Diegans is another matter.

"Losing Kitty Hawk is tough," said Howard Ruggles, an official with the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce. "In San Diego, Kitty Hawk is family."

"Some ships just seem to get the spotlight more than others," said Edwin McKellar, a retired Navy pilot and now executive director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum. "Kitty Hawk has glowed very brightly for all of her years."

McKellar's description is both figurative and literal.

In the 1960s and 1970s, San Diego was known for two nighttime beacons: the neon champagne glass and bubbles atop the now-defunct El Cortez Hotel, and the lighted number 63 on the Kitty Hawk's superstructure.

Bonds forged during times of adversity are often the strongest, and so it was between San Diego and the ship. It bears remembering just how hot the Cold War was in 1961 and how important the Kitty Hawk's role was in maintaining American military superiority.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was talking tough and testing the mettle of the young American president, John F. Kennedy. In the eight weeks between the Kitty Hawk's commissioning at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and its arrival in San Diego, the Soviet Union had resumed nuclear testing and detonated 28 nuclear devices.

The largest of the blasts, equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT, came the day before the Kitty Hawk reached San Diego. There have been suggestions through the years that the timing of the Soviet tests was not accidental.

The Soviets were known to be obsessed with the Kitty Hawk, the first of a new generation of U.S. "supercarriers" equipped with surface-to-air missiles and capable of launching and retrieving warplanes at a much quicker, more continuous pace than older carriers.

Soviet ships shadowed the Kitty Hawk as it made the long voyage from the East Coast around Cape Horn and up the western coast of South America and Central America. Kennedy was said to be delighted that the Soviets appeared spooked by the big ship and its military prowess.

Just three weeks after the Kitty Hawk arrived in San Diego, Kennedy came to watch Navy and Marine Corps maneuvers off the coast at Camp Pendleton. He spent 18 hours aboard the Kitty Hawk and used the occasion to give a tough Cold War-style speech.

In the process, the Kitty Hawk earned a reputation that would last through six tours during the Vietnam War and later tours in support of U.S. objectives in other international hot spots: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Somalia and elsewhere.

"With some ships, there's just something in the metal," said Rear Adm. William W. "Bear" Pickavance Jr., former Kitty Hawk skipper and now a carrier group commander. "For aviators, Kitty Hawk always had a reputation as an operator, always in the thick of it."

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