NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Newport News shipyard workers built the USS Enterprise, but their attention did not stop there.
When the one-of-a-kind aircraft carrier demanded special attention, they flew halfway around the world to fix it. When the ship returned from its final combat deployment in November 2012, ending more than 50 years of military service, a few veteran shipbuilders climbed in a small boat and escorted it into Hampton Roads.
Among them was Rodger Morefield, a sheet metal foreman with 34 years at Newport News Shipbuilding. He's fairly certain the little boat didn't get too close because the Coast Guard has rules about such things.
Then again, he was blinded by love.
"She's the only girlfriend I'm allowed to have, I'll put it that way," he said. "She has been high maintenance, but she has been worth it."
The Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, protected the nation's interests from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to the war in Afghanistan in 2012. Now retired from service, it sits in Pier 2 at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.
It is being shut down one last time.
About 600 sailors and twice as many shipyard employees are completing an "inactivation," in Navy parlance, for which HII was given a $745 million contract. The Enterprise will remain in Newport News until 2016. Eventually, it will be towed from Hampton Roads around the tip of South America to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash.
There it will be dismantled and recycled. And that's something shipyard workers would rather not talk about.
"It hurts — I'll tell you what," said Melvin Lassiter, a Newport News insulator who first worked on the ship in 1990.
The Navy has never permanently shut down a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. A big part of the job — removing spent fuel from the ship's nuclear reactors — is nothing new. Newport News has accomplished several mid-life carrier overhauls, which involve defueling followed by refueling. That's part of getting the ship back in the fight, as the Navy likes to put it.
But the Enterprise has no more fighting days left, and shipyard workers now face a sad reality: The ship is literally going dark before their eyes.
"We've got probably half the ship or more that is uninhabited," said Dave Long, program director. "It's dark — no electricity, no ventilation. And we've actually sectioned it off with certain barriers and locks, very safely, so people can't get lost."
Long tells the story about a small group of Newport News workers who would hop on a plane to make repair calls to a different part of the globe. That's the kind of loyalty the Enterprise inspires, he said.
Today, some employees simply want to walk onto the ship one last time. Long is already fielding requests from employees to "ride" the ship for a few hundred yards when, in January, it will transfer from Pier 2 to Dry Dock 11.
Sailors have an attachment as well.
Morefield's remark about "high maintenance" might sound like a joke, but it isn't. Operating a one-of-kind ship that is decades old sometimes required spare parts to be built from scratch. And when it came to propulsion, the Enterprise and its array of eight nuclear reactors — Nimitz-class carriers have two — made any tour memorable.
"Serving on Enterprise was almost a badge of honor among those who were nuclear trained," said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, now Navy's program executive officer of aircraft carriers. "If you didn't serve on Enterprise, you really haven't lived."
The inactivation of the Enterprise is proceeding in phases, said Moore. The first phase involves removing major components from the ship. The island on the flight deck has already been shortened — Moore says it looks like the ship has a "buzz cut."
"The good news is, a lot of that equipment has gone back and been refurbished — kind of like being an organ donor," he said.
The next phase requires building a complex in the lower decks to allow for the eight reactors to be defueled.
The below-decks enclosure spans much of the ship, said Moore. It is a secure area constructed from steel and includes checkpoints. Workers must cut apart other spaces to build the structure, and inside that, defuelers can access to the reactors. The work space also has offices, said Long.
"There are plenty of people that go to work, stay there the whole day and not come off the ship," he said.
Among those patrolling the deck plates one last time is the ship's commander, Capt. William C. Hamilton Jr. An Alabama native who flew combat missions off the USS Enterprise over Bosnia and Iraq, his job is keeping the crew focused on a job no one wants to do.
"It's very difficult," he said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel, only darkness. Taking it apart — where's the payoff?"
But for sailors, there is a practical side to getting the job done. They have to resume their careers.
"Therefore, you need to finish the job before you leave, and you need to leave on time ... to get back to the fleet and get back in the operational Navy," he said. "That's kind of the motivation."
Many of the sailors have served multiple deployments on the Enterprise and were brought back because they are familiar with the ship. Like Newport News shipbuilders, the crew has a sense of history, Hamilton said.
"This is something nobody wants to do, but it has to be done," he said. "So let's have people who love the ship do it. That's the dignity of it. We go about our business because we have other things to do, but you can't have your dessert until you eat your peas. That's kind of the same thing here."
The Navy will not officially decommission the ship until after defueling is complete. That day probably won't be a big deal. The Navy hasn't decided how to mark the moment, or even if it will. The ship got a rather big send off in December 2012 when it was retired from active service at Naval Station Norfolk.
That same day, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the name Enterprise has been selected for the third Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, construction of which is years away. And there is more to keeping the Enterprise alive than just the name.
Capt. Hamilton's inport cabin has four portholes taken from the USS Enterprise that served in World War II, the seventh ship to bear the name and the most decorated warship in U.S. history. Those portholes will be part of the new Enterprise. There is also talk of taking steel from the current Enterprise and incorporating it into the Ford-class version.
But the shipyard workers want to know exactly where that steel will be, because they'll want to touch it.
"We're working with the Navy to be clever when we do that," said Long. "We want to say — it's there."