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Honorable Death for a Rusty Warrior

May 06, 2004|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author, most recently, of "A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World" (HarperCollins, 2003).

The announcement last month that the Navy had chosen a site 24 miles off Pensacola, Fla., to be the final resting place for the retired aircraft carrier Oriskany was greeted with jubilation. Environmentalists, divers and anglers were all thrilled that the largest reef ever created by the deliberate sinking of a ship would be in the Gulf of Mexico.

For the men who served aboard the Mighty O during its 24 years of active duty -- I made two combat cruises to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1969 and 1970 as part of the ship's company -- the sinking resolves a dilemma that at times threatened to reduce the rusting behemoth they once called home to heaps of scrap metal. Another scheme, proposed a decade ago, would have converted it into a gaudy theme park to be tied up in Tokyo Bay.

Given those gloomy options, a burial at sea was by far the most honorable choice, allowing for a dignified exit while providing years of utility well beyond anything envisioned half a century ago when the flattop first went into service.

Although competition among states was intense -- Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia were in the running -- more than 20 other ships, including three mothballed carriers, are likely to meet the same fate, assuming that there are no major complications with the Oriskany project. The Navy and U.S. Maritime Administration intend to send the ship down, keel first, in 210 feet of water sometime this summer.

The Oriskany, named for a Revolutionary War battle in upstate New York, was built during the waning days of World War II but did not see action until the Korean War. In 1952, pilots from its air wing became the first naval aviators to engage enemy jets in combat, splashing a pair of MIG-15s and damaging a third. Two combat cruises later, the ship was host for the filming of "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" and "Men of the Fighting Lady," with the latter having its premiere on the 888-foot-long flight deck. In 1954, the retirement of the ship's mascot, Tripoli Schatzie, a dachshund who had rounded Cape Horn as the only female member of the crew -- and who received a Purple Heart for a gasoline burn suffered in the war zone -- occasioned a feature in the Saturday Evening Post.

The Oriskany began patrolling Gulf of Tonkin waters in 1963 immediately after the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem and concluded air operations off Vietnam 12 years later, having launched more sorties during that period than any other carrier.

Tales of valor were commonplace, with none more inspirational than the one of Lt. j.g. Denny Earl summoning the will to land a damaged A-4 Skyhawk onboard after both of his legs had been shattered by ground fire.

A number of Oriskany pilots became prisoners, including Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain, whose date with destiny over Hanoi began one day in 1967 in the cockpit of a Skyhawk. Whenever I hear the solemn words of the Navy Hymn -- "Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave" -- I grieve for all the lost, for the pilots who never returned from their missions, for the 44 men who died Oct. 26, 1966, when a magnesium flare exploded in a munitions locker, igniting a horrific fire that engulfed forward sections of the ship. And always, when I hear those words, I think of my shipmates -- we few, we happy few, as Shakespeare would have it -- young men who came together during what all of us acknowledge today was the defining experience of our generation. "Ships have a way of imparting something of themselves to those who sail in them," is the way our much-beloved skipper during the 1969 cruise, Capt. Jack S. Kenyon, described that ineffable magic that takes place. He told me he intends to be present as his former command "slips beneath the waves to rest forever on a friendly bottom" southeast of Pensacola, the birthplace of naval aviation.

To this noble vessel we all say Bravo Zulu, Oriskany, and Godspeed; may flights of angels guide you to your rest.

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