Retired USS Saratoga officer, daughter run half marathon to honor iconic aircraft carrier

The USS Saratoga departs for a decommissioning facility in Philadelphia in 1995.


By TERESA STEPZINSKI | The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union | Published: February 4, 2019

MAYPORT, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Sunday was about more than just a race for the hundreds of runners who turned out at Naval Station Mayport. It was about family — those related by blood and those united in service aboard the USS Saratoga.

“I’m soaking wet. But I’m happy … It was a great experience,” said Tom Herlihy, a retired U.S. Navy commander who was a young officer when he was assigned to the iconic aircraft carrier from 1986 to 1989.

Herlihy, 65, of Virginia, and his oldest daughter, Dianne Herlihy Sitkins, of Jacksonville Beach, were among those who tackled the inaugural Saratoga Classic Half Marathon, which, along with the Super Sara 5K, honors the fighting spirit of the venerable warship and the service of her crew through the years.

Sitkins, 36, surprised her dad by signing him up to be her teammate for the half marathon as a Christmas gift because she knew how much the “Sara” meant to him.

Cold and drenched with rain from a downpour the last mile or two but exhilarated nonetheless, the father-daughter team crossed the finish line together in 2 hours, 35 minutes.

“It got tough the last few miles, and that’s when the skies opened up, too,” Herlihy said. The rain, gusting winds and cold made it more challenging to do, he said. “Absolutely, I’m glad I did it,” he then added, laughing, “I got a beer after the race.”

The less-than-ideal conditions, Sitkins said, “made it all the more memorable.”

The race marked nearly 32 years after Sitkins, then a little girl, greeted her father with a kiss when the Saratoga returned home to Mayport after a training exercise. A Times-Union photographer captured the Herlihy family reunion in a picture published in the March 2, 1987, newspaper.

The Saratoga was the first carrier homeported at Mayport. The ship spent her entire career — 1957 to 1994 — based there. She operated through the Vietnam War, the Iraq war and numerous other conflicts.

The ship earned the nickname “Super Sara” after undergoing the most extensive industrial overhaul performed on any Navy ship from Oct. 1, 1980, to Feb. 2, 1983. The carrier had a crew of 2,700 and an air wing of 2,480 — many of whom still live in the Jacksonville area.

The Saratoga was a one-of-a-kind ship to serve on, said Herlihy, citing the dedication of her close-knit officers and crew. He said the people he served with are what he remembers most about the ship. He still keeps in touch with many of them.

“Saratoga was special,” said Herlihy, who was a lieutenant, then a lieutenant commander while assigned to the ship. He was nervous at first being stationed on a carrier, but quickly became glad he did it.

“Sara just had a personality,” said Herlihy, noting morale was always good on the ship. Serving on the Saratoga was considered “good duty,” although the hours were long and work hard, Herlihy and other former crewmembers said.

Sunday’s half marathon started with the whistle from the USS New York, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport built with steel salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

“It was inspiring,” Herlihy said.

The race was the first time Herlihy and Sitkins had run a half marathon. Until now, the father and daughter have focused on doing Olympic or sprint distance triathlons together. He had mentioned the Saratoga Classic in passing a couple of times after she initially told him about it.

“I planted the seed … and I think he needed a little push, something to help get him off the fence about doing it and so I got it as a Christmas gift. I told him, ‘Hey, guess what? I signed us both up for the race.’ He didn’t seem mad at me, so I thought was a good thing,” Sitkins said laughing at the memory of how she recruited her dad for the event.

Neither father nor daughter looked at the race supercompetitively.

“We weren’t looking at how fast we could do it. We just wanted to enjoy it and do it together,” she said. “It had the added meaning of being at Mayport, where he was stationed, and for the Saratoga.”

Herlihy said he’d feel successful if he finished the half marathon in less than 2½ hours. They were just five minutes off his informal pre-race goal.

“Most of it is about the memory of the Saratoga and secondly, doing it with my daughter. It’s all about the event and being able to do and share it with family,” he said.

They were among an estimated 600 to 700 runners expected to compete in the 13.1-mile half marathon and the 5K, said Steve Carman, fitness program director for Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Naval Station Mayport.

Carman said most of the athletes registered for the half marathon, whose course wound through the base, out the main gate to Florida State Road 116, then across the Wonderwood Bridge and back onto the base to finish on Charlie Pier past the line of ships in port. The 5K course went along the Mayport basin to finish back at Charlie Pier.

He said “100 percent of the race proceeds go back into the Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs and activities at Naval Station Mayport for the sailors and their families.”

“We wanted something new for Mayport and something that honored this ship, which was one of the most venerable ships that were ever in the basin here,” Carman said.

Everyone who finished received a unique medal featuring a 3-D image of the USS Saratoga with the Saratoga Classic logo.

“We think it’s a unique experience because they are going to get to see a very full basin of ships at the start/finish area as they run by, and then you are going to get some of the bridges, too.” he said. “So it’s going to be a neat experience, especially when people don’t normally get to see a military base or these beautiful warships.”

Decommissioned in 1994, an attempt to convert the Saratoga into a Jacksonville museum failed. The ship spent nearly two decades deteriorating at a Rhode Island dock. The warship was sold in 2014 for a penny and was sent to Texas to be scrapped.

Except for memories of her officers and crew, little remains of the ship except a 3-foot-by-16-foot section of steel, 5/8 of an inch thick, newly repainted battleship gray. On it, raised black letters — about a foot high — spell out the vessel’s name. It once was on the ship’s stern, and right between the R and the A, there’s still one rung from a ladder that ran up the ship.

Salvaged and restored through the hard work of former Saratoga crewmen, the nameplate was delivered recently to its new home at Mayport. It was displayed in the race village Sunday. It will remain at Mayport to serve as a reminder of her past and an inspiration to future generations of sailors — in a permanent place of honor on the installation.

Herlihy and Sitkins paused at the nameplate after finishing the half marathon to pay respect to the ship and the crew. Military service is a family tradition for them.

He retired in 2000 after 23 years in the Navy. Herlihy had worked his way up through the ranks after enlisting. His wife, Lena, is a U.S. Army veteran. Sitkins is in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves. Two of her brothers are Marines and another brother is in the Navy.

Sitkins was 5 when the photo of her giving her dad — then a lieutenant aboard the Saratoga — a welcome-home kiss was published on the Metro/State cover of the Times-Union.

The warship had returned to Mayport after training exercises. Herlihy was greeted by his wife and three of their seven children: Sitkins, her brother, Brian, and their sister, Ayleen. Their other four siblings hadn’t been born yet.

Sitkins conceded she’s a little fuzzy about the details of that homecoming almost 32 years ago. What she remembers most is how happy she was that her dad was home.

“I just always remember my dad. Just the feeling of him coming home and being so excited to see him,” said Sitkins, an environmental scientist who is married with three children. “My mom would always have us send him things when he was on the ship. Over the years, we’ve listened to some of the old tape recordings we sent, telling him what we did that day …”

Herlihy, who wore his Saratoga ball cap Sunday, had hoped to see some of his former shipmates but only saw two other people wearing any Saratoga gear. One of them was the ship’s final commanding officer — Capt. William “Bill” Kennedy, who retired after 30 years in the Navy.

“Being as he had his [Saratoga] ball cap on, I said, ‘Hey, shipmate,’ and I said I was on from 1986 to ’89, and he said, ‘I was on in 1994,’ ” Herlihy said.

Honoring the Saratoga by running the half marathon was good, but it wasn’t the best part of the experience, Herlihy said “It’s special to do it with our family … I think we might do it again next year.”

©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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