NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — In 1954, Newport News Shipbuilding and the Navy ushered in the age of the super carrier. This week, the ship that began a new chapter in military history embarked on a slow march to a humble end.
The decommissioned aircraft carrier Forrestal left Philadelphia last week under tow, on its away to a dismantling and recycling company in Brownsville, Texas, where it will be cut up into scrap.
Taxpayers shelled out $218 million for the Forrestal when it was built. The Navy paid All Star Metals 1 cent to take it, a job that requires the company to assume the cost of transport and cut up some 58,000 tons of steel, then recoup its investment on the scrap metals market.
The Forrestal was the first carrier built with an angled flight deck to handle the new generation of fighter jets, said Mike Dillard, the shipyard's photo historian. It had a folding mast so it could squeeze under the Brooklyn Bridge and reach the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was the first of four Forrestal-class carriers, the other three being the Ranger, the Saratoga and the Independence.
It was named for James Forrestal, and therein lies another tale.
Forrestal served as an under secretary of the Navy through the majority of World War II. He became Navy secretary in 1944 and the first Secretary of Defense when a 1947 law realigned and unified the military under a single cabinet department.
However, unifying the rival factions of the U.S. military wasn't easy. As noted by the Naval Historical Center, the Air Force argued that long-range bombers could serve as the dominant force in future wars, carrying nuclear bombs. The Navy wanted to build big aircraft carriers to launch airplanes carrying those nukes.
The unrelenting political squeeze – politics at home and the new Cold War abroad -- took its toll on Forrestal, who suffered from bouts of despair and mood swings. He resigned in March 1949.
And as the case today, Newport News Shipbuilding found itself caught up in Washington politics.
In fact, what happened soon after Forrestal resigned makes today's debate over sequestration and budget cuts sound relatively tame.
The Navy had received approval to build the USS United States, designed to deliver a long-range nuclear bombardment. The shipyard laid the keel in mid-April 1949, less than one month after Forrestal resigned. Five days later, the shipyard got a letter from new Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson that the project was canceled.
Fast forward to the mid-1950s, when the Navy chose to break with tradition and name its first super carrier after Forrestal. It was seen not only as a tribute to a man who led the Navy through a difficult time, but as a gesture of defiance to former President Harry S. Truman, with whom Forrestal feuded.
Commissioned in Sept. 29, 1955, Forrestal served for more than 38 years. Sadly, one of its headline events came during the Vietnam War when a fire broke out on the flight deck, touched off by a stray rocket launch. The fire killed 134 sailors, and a young Navy pilot named John McCain escaped with his life. He would later be shot down, captured, then rebound from his ordeal as a POW to become a senator from Arizona and presidential candidate.
The senator issued a statement as the Forrestal began its final journey. It read in part:
"I will never forget when that Zuni rocket hit my A-4 Skyhawk after it was accidentally fired from across the flight deck, rupturing the fuel tank and setting that horrific, costly fire. I will always remember and honor my brave comrades who died in the Forrestal fire. Although the ship is . . . to be physically dismembered, the bonds forged and memories created among shipmates will live forever."
In 1999, the Navy offered to donate the ship to an eligible group as a museum or memorial, but the Navy said it didn't receive any viable applications. It was designated for disposal in December 2003.
Under terms of the contract with All Star Metals, the Navy will continue to own the ship during the dismantling process until it is fully taken apart. All Star Metals then takes ownership of the scrap metal.
The job will be a major undertaking for the Texas firm.
"We will probably have to increase our workforce by fifty percent or more," said Loda Shah, environmental and safety director.
She said the project will proceed in phases. The ship will be stripped of equipment before trained workers come in to remove asbestos. Then the firm will employ torch cutters or "burners" to begin dismantling the ship.
How profitable will it be? Shah said that all depends on market prices some months from now, and that makes it difficult to predict. The project is expected to take until October 2015.
Shah said the company is conscious of the place in naval history that Forrestal occupies, and they're working on ways to honor that memory.