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THE NATION

Aircraft carrier begins final journey

Sailors bid farewell to the Constellation as the retired, stripped ship is towed from San Diego.

September 13, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — After 41 years, 21 overseas deployments, eight combat tours and decades as a local icon, the aircraft carrier Constellation left San Diego Bay for the final time Friday for a long, slow journey into retirement.

For sailors who had served aboard the giant ship known as "Connie," it was a sorrowful occasion.

"Connie is my girl," said Chief Petty Officer Efren Ponce, one of a group of sailors who sang "Anchors Aweigh" as the ship departed shortly before 6 a.m. "She's where I learned how to be a sailor. I'll miss her."

Tugs pushed the 1,069-foot-long, 80,000-ton ship away from the dock at North Island Naval Air Station. Its boilers cold, its engines silent and its electronic gear stripped away, the Constellation will be towed to the mothball fleet at Bremerton, Wash.

"It's very sad to see her like this, just a hulk," said Chief Petty Officer Salvador Calfy. "She's too young and too good to go like this."

Maybe so, but the Connie is also too expensive. The Navy cannot afford the $500-million-a-year cost of maintaining and operating the Constellation, one of only three conventionally powered carriers in the Navy.

Navy strategy calls for 12 carriers. With the recent commissioning of a 13th, the nuclear-powered Ronald Reagan, the Constellation became expendable. The Reagan is expected to arrive in San Diego in the spring to join the carriers Nimitz and John C. Stennis.

Once the Constellation was home to 5,000 sailors and Marines. On its final trip, only four sailors will be aboard to watch for fire and flooding, the twin perils of all ships at sea.

At four to five knots an hour, the ship that moved boldly through the Persian Gulf at 35 knots to launch planes striking at Iraq will take two weeks for the 1,200-mile voyage to the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility.

Crew members spent weeks removing equipment and an estimated $350 million worth of spare parts from more than 2,600 compartments, tanks, rooms and other work spaces. When the task was done, the Constellation took on a ghostly emptiness that was shocking to sailors accustomed to the 24-hour-a-day work schedule of a carrier at sea.

"It's been difficult seeing her so lifeless -- no watch teams, no working parties, no bells, nobody going on and off the brow," said Chief Petty Officer William Winstel. "It's been like getting ready for a funeral."

The Constellation returned to San Diego in June after a deployment in which its warplanes flew more than 1,500 missions and dropped 1.3 million pounds of bombs on targets in Iraq. "It was a fitting mission for her last deployment," said Lt. j.g. Ian Scott. "She was a warship and she was good at it."

It is a point of pride among Constellation crew members that the ship, although older and more maintenance-needy, performed as well, maybe better, than other carriers assigned to war duty.

"Other carriers sometimes got underway late, but the Connie always got underway on time," said Lt. Sarah Coplan. "I'll never forget standing on the bridge and watching the planes launching with bombs and then coming back later without any bombs: Mission accomplished."

The Constellation, the second in a new Kitty Hawk class of carriers authorized during the Eisenhower administration, almost didn't make it into the fleet.

While under construction at the New York Navy Yard in 1960, the ship's structure was severely damaged by an explosion and fire that killed 50 shipyard workers and injured 150.

A second tragedy struck during a sea trial in 1961 when a flash fire in the engine room killed two sailors and two civilians.

Although the fires delayed construction, Navy planners were determined to build the largest warships the world had ever known during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.

After a voyage around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, the Constellation arrived in San Diego on Sept. 17, 1962, to enormous hoopla. Children were allowed to skip school to await the arrival; thousands of San Diegans lined the shore to watch the ship glide around Ballast Point and into the bay.

After Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, some of the first U.S. airstrikes of the Vietnam War were launched from the Constellation. The ship was deployed seven times during the war.

Flying their F-4 Phantom off the Constellation in 1972, pilot Lt. Randall "Duke" Cunningham and radar-intercept officer Lt. j.g. Willie Driscoll downed five MIGs, becoming America's first fighter aces of the war. Cunningham is a Republican congressman from San Diego; Driscoll lives in Del Mar and sells commercial real estate.

Driscoll said Friday that he felt a pang of sadness when he saw pictures on television of the Constellation's departure.

"She was a great ship," Driscoll said. "For me and Duke, she represented a safe refuge from the hellfire of real combat. She was our whole world."

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan, during an on-board visit, dubbed the Constellation "America's flagship," a nickname that stuck. More than 390,000 landings were made on the flight deck during its four decades in the fleet.

Even in military-centric San Diego, where the comings and goings of ships and Marine combat units are afforded large-scale news coverage, the Constellation was a standout.

Coverage of the ship's decommissioning ceremony in August was voluminous. Four television stations provided live coverage of Friday's unceremonious departure.

Part of the Constellation's charisma may come from its longevity. Few ships remain in the same home port as long as the Constellation.

The number 64 on the ship's control tower, which is kept visible at night by lights, was one of the most recognizable features of the local waterfront.

"That 64 has been there a long time," said Capt. David Landon, commanding officer at North Island.

"It's going to be a big blank space out there."

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