Petty Officer 2nd Class Dale Edward Palmer walks the same passageways his late father walked almost 50 years ago. Palmer's father was a "plank owner" on Kitty Hawk and the machinist's mate said he feels a part of something special "being able to sail the seas on a piece of history."

Petty Officer 2nd Class Dale Edward Palmer walks the same passageways his late father walked almost 50 years ago. Palmer's father was a "plank owner" on Kitty Hawk and the machinist's mate said he feels a part of something special "being able to sail the seas on a piece of history." (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Joseph Downing’s dad plans to visit the USS Kitty Hawk in Bremerton, Wash., this summer for the typical "this-is-where-I-eat-and-sleep" parent tour.

Then Downing’s dad will "turn to" and give his son the same tour, showing him where he ate and slept aboard the aircraft carrier as a Kitty Hawk plank owner who served aboard the ship on its maiden voyage more than 40 years ago.

"My dad told me it was a tough ship," Downing, a 42-year-old petty officer first class, said last week as the ship’s days in Yokosuka dwindled and it neared its final departure May 28 for decommissioning at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. "He said ‘If you’re not a sailor before you get here, you will be when you leave.’ "

A personnel specialist and admitted desk jockey, Downing said his dad was right.

"It’s the same old ship … a few new weapons systems here and there, but it’s the same ship that pulled out to sea all of those years ago," Downing said.

Kitty Hawk has racked up sea stories aplenty since its commissioning in Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on April 29, 1961.

Downing’s dad was aboard when the carrier — about 1,062 feet long and 250 feet at its widest point — squeezed through the Panama Canal for the first time.

"It was close — about three feet to spare," Downing said. "I looked up the pictures."

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Vaughn Monigold’s late father, Master Chief Petty Officer Floyd D. Monigold, was aboard the Kitty Hawk in Japan.

"He wrote us that the ship’s captain announced the news at 6 a.m.," Vaughn said via e-mail, adding that the carrier fired guns every 30 minutes the day of the funeral.

That was a long time ago, but Vaughn, a civilian in the States, still plans to attend the decommissioning ceremony in Bremerton "because of my close ties with my father and his fondness of the Kitty Hawk."

The carrier’s veterans find plenty to reminisce about on Internet chat boards. Some are serious: remembering the six sailors who lost their lives in a 1973 fire, as well as sailors killed in action, in accidents, and those who took their own lives.

Others poke fun, describing the carrier’s 1984 collision with a Russian submarine as "the thing that went bump in the night," along with stories of seasickness and wild port visits.

Former Kitty Hawk sailor William J. Byrnes remembers a boatswain’s mate on his general quarters team accidentally replacing the word "imminent" with "intimate" during crucial all-hands messages, he said.

"Many sailors still wonder what an ‘intimate’ atomic attack is. Warmer than most? Really close?" wondered Byrnes in an e-mail to Stripes.

No one would mistake Kitty Hawk for "a new ship," said Kitty Hawk Commanding Officer Capt. Todd Zecchin. He called the carrier "a tough old ship and a unique, grand old lady" that hasn’t slowed in its twilight years.

"We’ve got equipment that is literally more than a half-century old," Zecchin said in an e-mail, using the carrier’s 1,200-pounds-per-square-inch steam boilers as examples. Kitty Hawk sailors operate an engineering plant found no where else in the Navy, he said.

"The challenge of having such an old ship, yet being forward deployed and therefore the hardest working carrier in the Navy, is awesome," Zecchin said.

Kitty Hawk Chief Petty Officer Tommy Creaturo, on his second tour aboard the carrier, agreed that "Kitty Hawk is a tough ship — very tough."

His first tour was when the carrier served as a U.S. Forces joint task force staging base for the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks .

"I’m a New Yorker," Creature said with a thick Brooklyn accent. "When the towers came down … I had friends and family out there. I didn’t care how long we stayed out to sea."

The carrier went 74 days without a port visit.

About 300 Kitty Hawk veterans will sail aboard the carrier on the final leg of its last voyage, from San Diego to Bremerton, said ship spokesman Chief Petty Officer Jason Chudy.

The ship officially changes homeport from Yokosuka to Bremerton on July 15 and is expected to be decommissioned in early 2009, he said.

Along the way, the Kitty Hawk will do its final burial at sea — a last request of a former sailor. Chief Petty Officer Elison Talabong said he volunteered to participate in the ceremony.

"It’s an honor," Talabong said. "A lot of people put their heart and soul into this ship. They gave up a part of them to keep this ship running. And I like being a part of that."

Where are they now?

The USS IndependenceThe "Indy" called Yokosuka home from September 1991 to July 1998. The carrier was decommissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., on Sept. 30, 1998. The ship was almost 40 years old — 39 years, 9 months and 20 days, to be precise. The ship was mothballed for 5½ years before being officially struck from the Navy inventory. Because it was stripped for parts for other carriers, Navy officials first made the Indy one of the 24 ships available to be sunk to create an artificial reef, but later scheduled the ship to be dismantled.

The USS MidwayThe Midway operated out of Yokosuka from August 1973 to August 1991. The first aircraft carrier commissioned after World War II in 1945, the Midway — named after a decisive Pacific battle during the war near Midway Island — was decommissioned at North Island Naval Station on April 11, 1992, and struck from the Navy list in 1997.

In 2003, the Midway was towed from the Navy’s Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Bremerton to San Diego to become a floating museum. The ship was opened to public as the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum on June 7, 2004.

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