ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE — Since its deployment during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the USS Enterprise has seen conflicts ranging from the war in Vietnam to those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. After more than 50 years at sea, the USS Enterprise is headed home from deployment for the last time.
The U.S. Navy’s oldest operating vessel, the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier, made its final port stop in Naples, Italy, on Friday before setting sail for its home port, Norfolk, Va., where it will be broken down piece by piece before its steel ligaments are sold off for scrap. Its last hurrah mirrored its first. The Enterprise made its inaugural stop in Naples after its commissioning in 1962.
The Enterprise embarked on its 25th and final deployment in March, to the Middle East. In those seven months, its 180 aviators flew roughly 8,800 sorties and the ship crossed the Strait of Hormuz 10 times, peacefully facing off against Iranian sailors amid building tensions in the region. During its longest period at sea, the crew went 52 days without setting foot on land.
“This ship has served its time,” said Rear Adm. Walter Carter, commander of the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, while the ship was ported in the Gulf of Naples on Friday. “It’s time to retire.”
Many who have served on the ship continue to follow its movements. Nearly 2,000 veterans attended the Enterprise’s 50th birthday celebration last year in Norfolk, and 12,000 seats have been set aside for the inactivation ceremony in December.
“It’s not lost on me, or any sailor or Marine who has served on this ship,” Carter said. “We all understand the importance of those who came before us and we just want to bring the ship home with the honor and credit that she deserves.”
Flags representing the 50 states lined a red carpet leading through the ship’s hangar bay and festive lights were strung across the flight deck Friday ahead of a reception for local dignitaries, including U.S. Ambassador to Italy David Thorne and Adm. Bruce Clingan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.
James Cramer, a retired seaman who served on the Enterprise from 1977 through 1980, hasn’t seen the ship in more than 30 years, but he still follows its activities on Facebook.
“I hate to see it go,” said Cramer, 54, of Pontiac, Mich., in a telephone interview “It’s depressing. It breaks my heart. It’s like watching them tear down your old house.”
Cramer was 19 when he was stationed on the ship in February 1977. He recalled traveling under the Golden Gate Bridge, fearful that the Enterprise’s soaring tower would hit the iconic span.
“The Enterprise is part of history,” Cramer said. “I couldn’t believe it when I got my orders to go on it. We got to go everywhere and see everything. I was just a country boy from Alabama and doing something like that was just awesome. You grew up on that ship.”
The retirement will reduce the number of U.S. aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.
Under federal law, the Defense Department must maintain 11 carriers, but the Navy obtained a waiver to sidestep that mandate through 2015. The Enterprise’s replacement, the USS Gerald R. Ford, won’t be ready for duty until late that year.
Pentagon leaders say a shrinking military budget has made it nearly impossible to maintain an 11-carrier mandate in the near future. The Navy expects to save $85 million annually while the Enterprise is decommissioned.
Some sailors fear the reduced force will also mean the retirement of the Enterprise’s storied name, which has been carried by eight ships since the American Revolution. Supporters have started a petition to urge the Navy to name its next carrier Enterprise. But it’s unlikely another ship would carry that name before at least 2020 because the next carriers due for commissioning have been named.
The Enterprise’s age is apparent throughout the ship. Some elevators have long been out of commission, too expensive to fix. Rust coats nearly every surface, thick layers of steel have grown thin with time and when the USS Enterprise approaches full speed, “you can feel it shake,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Watson said last month, during a visit by reporters while the ship was deployed in the Gulf of Oman.
The Enterprise has required $30 million in annual maintenance costs in recent years and $55 million in annual operating costs, said Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler, the Enterprise’s spokeswoman.
Inside the ship’s mechanic shop, sailors worked long hours making new surface grinders, drill pressers, gears and flanges from big blocks of brass and steel.
“This is an old ship,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Petronio, the machine shop’s leading petty officer, said last month. “They stopped producing these parts a long time ago.”
Capt. Stephen Paulette, an oral surgeon assigned to the ship, first visited the Enterprise when he was 10 years old during a Boy Scout field trip. Even then, he said last month, he was awed by the ship’s legacy. As an adult, he was thrilled when he learned he had been assigned to the Enterprise.
“It’s just such a historic ship,” he said. “We didn’t even walk on the moon when this was designed.”