Kitty Hawk prepares for final farewell
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The yen-only DyDo vending machines disappeared from the ship this week.
Petty Officer 3rd Class David Santiago is filling up on sushi.
Chief Petty Officer Elison Talabong is looking for someone to buy his car.
Such are the many preparations under way for the final farewell of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which leaves Japan for good this week.
After a decade in Yokosuka, the 47-year-old aircraft carrier will pull out amid parting festivities and farewells from U.S. and Japanese dignitaries Wednesday morning.
The crew of the Kitty Hawk’s Japanese sister ship, the JS Shirane, will cast off the U.S. carrier’s mooring lines for the final time. The Kitty Hawk’s crew, about 3,000 sailors, will "man the rails" and stand in a formation that spells out "sayonara" in kanji characters on the carrier’s flight deck as it leaves.
And when it goes, the Kitty Hawk will leave a big empty space at its pier and a quieted Yokosuka Naval Base community — until the USS George Washington, Yokosuka’s next forward-deployed aircraft carrier, arrives in August.
But the George Washington isn’t on Chief Petty Officer Ace Elacio’s stress list yet. Only about 30 "GW" families have arrived, compared to the 2,000 Kitty Hawk families processing through Yokosuka’s Personal Property Office. His sayonara started in January with pack-outs of up to 100,000 pounds a day, he said.
"It’s been crazy for us," said Elacio, as office personnel extended hours through weekends and even set up shop aboard the ship. "We learned that we have to be flexible."
For another 900 Kitty Hawk sailors, life won’t change much. Sailors like Petty Officer 2nd Class Rudy Liverpool will simply walk over to the George Washington when the two ships do a "hull swap" in Hawaii in June. They’ll continue their jobs on the new ship, eventually returning to Yokosuka.
"I love Japan — the culture, the fashion," Liverpool said. "I wanted to stay here."
Other sailors’ fates are still written in pencil, awaiting hard orders for their next duty stations. Some wait for approval to remain at Yokosuka beyond Kitty Hawk’s official homeport date change of July 15, due to a mistaken Navy message that originally gave people until January 2009 before moving the date up to July.
"The transition is not easy, but we’ve worked extremely hard to ensure that the process is as easy on everyone as we could make it," said Kitty Hawk commanding officer Capt. Todd Zecchin.
The carrier is even trying to help sailors sell their Japanese vehicles to the incoming George Washington crew, said ship spokesman Chief Petty Officer Jason Chudy.
"We have a list of everyone’s cars, motorcycles and bicycles, and we are pushing hard to make sure every one is either sold or junked," Chudy said. "We do not want our lasting memory to be a bunch of abandoned cars."
New ship on the horizon
While there is excitement in waving goodbye to the Kitty Hawk, there’s also flutter surrounding its replacement — the USS George Washington, the first nuclear-propelled ship forward-deployed to Japan.
Accommodating the new carrier required dredging the harbor to handle its deeper draft, and a new power plant is slated to come online to electrify the ship in port. Also, a new waterfront workspace is in place for the 600 Puget Sound Naval Shipyard workers who will make pilgrimages from Bremerton, Wash., to maintain the George Washington’s nuclear propulsion system.
While the Kitty Hawk’s departure will be nostalgic, the George Washington signals a move forward, U.S. Forces Japan commander Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Rice said last week.
"As strong as the Kitty Hawk has been for the alliance, we are bringing in a capability that’s even stronger, looking toward the next 10 to 20 years," Rice said. "We are going to replace it with an even more capable ship that I’m confident will be, at the end of the day, warmly welcomed by all members of the alliance, and will find a strong home here at Yokosuka."
Sailor Tommy Creaturo, a chief petty officer who will cross decks to the George Washington, called the new ship an upgrade.
"It’s like going from a Pinto to a Cadillac," Creaturo said. Pausing a moment, he rethought the comparison. "Maybe more like going from a Model T to a Cadillac."
In the community, safety concerns about the ship’s nuclear power plant prompted two Yokosuka-based referendum attempts in the past two years. Although citizens’ groups gathered the required number of signatures, the Yokosuka City Council defeated the measure before it could go to a vote of the people.
Even though she has safety concerns, one 48-year-old Yokosuka woman called the carrier’s arrival "inevitable" due to the financial implications.
Kimie Noji, a 76-year-old liquor store owner, took a fatalist view indicative of a woman who has spent her life in a Navy town.
"Ships come and go," Noji said.
Goodbye, for now
But Kitty Hawk still has many nautical miles to go before she sleeps.
After the "hull swap" in Hawaii, the carrier will steam to its former homeport of San Diego for a welcome-home party, then to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to await decommissioning.
Although the decommissioning date has been set by instruction at Jan. 31, it is largely dependent on when the Navy’s newest carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, is ready for commissioning due to an 11-carrier mandate set by Congress.
Former Petty Officer 1st Class Camilo Martinez said he will attend the decommissioning when the Kitty Hawk gets to her final resting place.
"In the Bible book of Ecclesiastes we read, ‘For everything there is an appointed time … a time for birth and a time to die....’ " Martinez said in an e-mail. "Thus, even though the Hawk, in recent pictures, looks as awesome and majestic as when I first saw her, it is time for her to go."
Stars and Stripes reporters Teri Weaver and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.
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