As the Navy prepares to bid farewell to the USS Enterprise, it paused Friday to honor those who lived through one of its darkest days.
On the morning of Jan. 14, 1969, a rocket loaded on an F-4 Phantom jet overheated due to exhaust from a nearby vehicle. The rocket blew up and set off a disastrous fire on the flight deck, spreading to fighter jets loaded with bombs, missiles and thousands of pounds of jet fuel.
Live bombs and burning fuel spread below as explosions tore massive holes in the deck. Before it was over, 28 sailors were killed and 314 were injured, many severely.
Petty Officer Third Class Terry Johnson had just ended a 12-hour overnight shift and was getting ready for sleep when the first explosion sounded.
"I barely got out," he recalled. "I was on my way out of there, and my compartment blew up and kind of flattened me. I bounced once and kept going."
As the fire roared, Johnson ran to the other side of the ship – where he was supposed to go – and joined a hose crew.
"There were about three or four people in my compartment when it blew up," he said.
At a brief morning service on a sun-splashed flight deck, the Navy paid homage to survivors like Johnson and to those sailors who didn't make it. The names of the dead were read aloud, and the crowd heard an emotional, halting speech from Michael Neville, who was on the flight deck at 8:18 a.m. when the first rocket exploded.
He reminded the group of the Enterprise's motto: "We are legend."
"We all own it," he said. "But the legend that we close the book on tomorrow was paid for with the lives of our fallen shipmates, tears of their loved ones, the blood of our wounded and the courage and tenacity of everyone onboard that day."
After the ceremony, he recalled his own experience during the fire.
"I was airman's apprentice. I was a pup. I was five months out of boot camp," he said. "The first couple of blasts knocked us all to the deck, and we simply had to retreat and cover ourselves, sort of get a sense of what was going on."
He said it was difficult to make it through the service.
"It is really – there's some conflicting emotions there," he said. "I'm kind of an emotional guy when it comes to this stuff."
From jets to leg irons
After the service, Enterprise veterans and their families toured the massive ship. Former Navy Capt. Jim Mulligan recalled the day he took off from the flight deck.
He didn't see U.S. soil again for nearly seven years.
On March 20, 1966, Mulligan was the executive officer of an Enterprise-based fighter squadron, set to take command April 1. He took off that day on a combat mission over North Vietnam.
Hit by enemy fire, he ejected from his A-4 Skyhawk and was knocked unconscious. He woke up in a rice paddy with a broken shoulder, cracked ribs and a rifle pointed at him.
Mulligan spent time in several prisoner of war camps, including the Hanoi Hilton, and became part of the fabled "Alcatraz Gang," a group of 11 POWs held in solitary confinement from October 1967 to December 1969 in a special facility about a mile from the Hanoi Hilton. They were considered leaders of the prisoners' resistance.
"We were selected as the bad guys who were ruining their programs," said Mulligan, now 86 and a resident of Virginia Beach.
He spent more than 42 months in solitary confinement, more than 30 months in leg irons. He was not released until 1973. On Friday, he seemed rather comfortable in the crowded confines of the Enterprise.
"The taxpayers invested wisely," he said.
Time to go
The word "bittersweet" was tossed around a lot Friday. It seemed a fitting term for the mixed emotions of Enterprise veterans who love their ship, but knew it was time to let go.
Retired Navy Capt. Paul Hollandsworth was the second fighter pilot to take off from Enterprise on Dec. 2, 1965, the day it became the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in combat. It was the early days of the Vietnam war, and the target was a camp where the enemy had made a foray into South Vietnam.
"You're nervous, but I think you're more nervous about how you will react, rather than getting hurt," he said.
That first mission in his A-4 went off without a hitch.
"We bombed it like we were going to get our butts shot off," he said. "Drop the bomb and run like hell. And of course, there wasn't anything there."
As Hollandsworth spoke, he sat in one of the thousands of folding chairs arranged in rows for Saturday's inactivation ceremony, the last public event for the Navy ship.
"It's sad to see a national asset like this go away, but how do I feel about it? It's time." Then he laughed. "I've grown too fat to fit in an A-4! It's like everything else. Time passes us by and it's time to put her away."