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Father, son bound by blood and Enterprise

VANCOUVER, Wash. — There have been two aircraft carriers named USS Enterprise in the past 70 years. Two father-and-son sailors, Ted and Keith Cupp, helped both ships make history.

Keith Cupp was a nuclear propulsion officer on the most recent USS Enterprise. Designated CVN 65, it was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The eighth U.S. Navy ship bearing the Enterprise name was retired on Dec. 1, and the Vancouver man was a special guest. So was his dad, Ted Cupp, who had served on the previous Enterprise. That carrier was designated CV 6, but was better known as "Big E" during World War II, when it became the most decorated U.S. Navy ship in history.

The two Cupps had a unique role at the retirement ceremony as the only father-son combination representing both Enterprise carriers.

Ted Cupp, who lives near Salem, Ore., was one of only six WWII Enterprise veterans at Norfolk, Va., for the occasion.

"We sat next to different eras of history," Keith Cupp said. At one function, the man sitting next to him had been aboard the just-retired nuclear carrier at the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the Vancouver veteran said.

"Another fellow was aboard when the invasion of Afghanistan started. The papers authorizing the strike were signed on the Enterprise. Dad connected with two former CV 6 vets he was on board with" during WWII, Keith Cupp said.

They were accompanied by his 14-year-old son, Brian Cupp. His daughter, Jennifer Cupp, 25, drove from Washington, D.C., to be part of the event.

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Ted Cupp, who was barely 17 when he joined the Navy, started the family's Enterprise saga in 1942. He boarded the carrier in Puget Sound, where it was undergoing repairs.

He was assigned the job of water tender on boiler No. 7.

"When we were at battle stations, my job was to be on the bridge with a phone," the 87-year-old former sailor said. "I'd look at the smokestack, if I could see smoke coming out of it."

If Cupp could see smoke rising from the stack, an enemy ship just over the horizon could also see smoke — tipping off the Enterprise's position. Cupp would call down and tell the crew of boiler No. 7 to clear the smoke.

Cupp participated in 17 engagements. His battle station offered an interesting vantage point of combat — particularly when a kamikaze pilot flew straight down at the ship.

'No defense'

"There was not a gun in a Navy that could shoot straight up; when he came straight down, there was no defense," Ted Cupp said. "We knew we had it right then."

The Japanese pilot hit one of the elevators that lifted planes from the hangar deck to the flight deck.

"Ninety tons went 90 feet in the air. We lost 30 men in the initial blast," Cupp said, and seven others were trapped in the elevator's control room.

When hostilities ended, the Enterprise headed for Great Britain by way of the Panama Canal on a "magic carpet" voyage — bringing American soldiers home. While it was in England, the Enterprise became the only non-British ship in 400 years to receive a British Admiralty pennant.

The WWII carrier was sold for scrap in 1958, and the nuclear-powered carrier assumed the historic name when it entered service in 1961.

Keith Cupp served on his generation's Enterprise for 21/2 years, from June 1985 to December 1987. His ship was part of a military operation in 1968 when its planes flew strikes against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's headquarters.

Later, Cupp said, he'd occasionally see that same building on TV news reports.

"Gadhafi would hold press conferences at the same building we'd bombed."

The Enterprise was in the neighborhood in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine.

"As nuclear-trained officers on a nuclear ship, we were the eyes and ears" of the Enterprise, he said. "We watched the radiological cloud pass over Europe."

'Hot' merchandise

During a shopping trip at a Mediterranean port, they noticed something else linked to radiation.

"Low prices on vegetables," said Cupp, who is a business coach. "We checked, and they were somewhat hot. We told them that we wouldn't be buying those vegetables."

The Enterprise also was part of anti-pirate operations off Africa.

After 51 years of service, the nuclear-powered carrier is scheduled to be scrapped.

"It was a flawed design," Cupp said. None of the Navy's subsequent aircraft carriers were built with the Enterprise's nuclear reactor layout, and no other crewmen were trained to operate a ship of that design.

The visit to Norfolk did give Keith Cupp a chance to revisit another aspect of very personal history.

"Jennifer, our daughter, was born while I was at sea. I was given a telegram, congratulating Lt. j.g. Cupp. 'First-born is a girl, unnamed. Mother and daughter are doing fine.' We were about 300 miles off the coast of San Diego. The next day, I flew back."

When his family had a chance to tour the ship a few days ago, "I took my daughter to the very spot on the ship where I opened the telegram," he said.

"I apologized for not being at her birth," Cupp said. Then he added, "The price of freedom involves sacrifice … Our sacrifice was me not being with you and mom."

tom.vogt@columbian.com
 

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