NEWPORT, R.I. — Veterans who served on the USS Saratoga said goodbye Friday to the aircraft carrier that was their home.
More than 100 veterans from all eras of the carrier's life took part in a farewell ceremony at Naval Station Newport. The Saratoga will be towed to Texas later this month to be dismantled.
Many said it was difficult to see the decommissioned carrier in a state of disrepair. They had tried to save it by establishing a foundation to turn it into a museum. But the Navy took the Saratoga off the donation list in 2010 after another carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, became available for a museum and the foundation switched its preservation efforts.
"I wanted to see her before she goes to that big ocean in the sky," said Richard Crudele, 76, of Cranston, Rhode Island. "But I don't like it one bit. She deserves to be a museum."
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. James D'Agostino, director of the Kennedy project, assured the vets there will be a memorial to the Saratoga on board the future museum.
Several men who helped commission the Saratoga in 1956 threw a wreath into the water as another veteran played taps. Earl Clough's eyes filled with tears.
"A lot of my life is in there," said the 79-year-old from Laconia, New Hampshire. "That's my lady."
The veterans walked along the pier, taking pictures and looking up at the Saratoga one last time. Chad Thomas, 46, traveled from Washington state to attend.
"All I want to do is get back on," he said.
The Saratoga — named for the decisive battle of the American Revolution fought in upstate New York — completed 22 deployments before it was decommissioned in 1994. It was off the coast of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, off of Vietnam during the Vietnam War and in the Persian Gulf during the first Iraq War. It arrived in Newport in 1998.
Frank Longobardo, 41, of Middletown, New Jersey, said joining the last crew on the Saratoga in 1993 was a dream come true.
"To the average person this looks like an empty piece of steel," he said. "But for us, we can envision the sounds and smells, what it was like when we were on board. It's sad to see her falling apart."
"She was our home," said Monty Gomez, 80, of Middletown, Rhode Island. "She supported us and it's time to say goodbye."