Two captains share a bond with the former USS John F. Kennedy
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: December 1, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Earl “Buddy” Yates and Dennis FitzPatrick grew up nearly 40 years apart, but they are cut from the same Navy cloth and are united by the aircraft carrier known as “Big John.”
The USS John F. Kennedy was commissioned in 1968 and saw service over four decades. Yates was its first captain and molded the initial crew at the height of the Cold War. FitzPatrick was the last officer to command Kennedy in combat, taking over in 2004 during the bitter fight for Fallujah during the Iraq War.
Both men had distinguished careers apart from Kennedy and retired from the Navy as rear admirals.
The ship was decommissioned in 2007, but its presence will loom large over Newport News Shipbuilding on Dec. 7, when a new carrier will be christened in the name of the 35th president.
More than 150 retired sailors from the original Kennedy are expected to attend the ceremony, according to Bob Haner, a Florida resident who heads the JFK association. The group is holding its reunion this week in Virginia Beach to coincide with the event.
“We’re proud and we’re happy,” said Haner. “Understandably, we’re also kind of sad. In some ways, we wish our ship was still out there, serving.”
Yates and FitzPatrick can relate.
A career of transitions
Born in 1923, Yates grew up in North Carolina with a sister who was a year and a half older. When she was in first grade, he paid attention to her homework. When she hit second grade, he learned some more from her.
“I finally got to the same class as my sister and graduated the same year,” he said.
At 15, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina, but then entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1940. He was technically a member of the Class of 1944, but he graduated in June 1943 under an accelerated schedule due to World War II.
He served on the destroyer USS Dyson in the Pacific Theater, arriving sometime after the future president Kennedy survived a harrowing episode when his patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109, was cut in half by a Japanese warship. Kennedy, then a young lieutenant, was credited with rescuing injured members of his crew.
“President Kennedy already had his PT-109 problem and had gone back to the states by the time I got out to the war,” Yates said. “We did some refueling and replenishing of PT boats quite a bit. We never got to do the PT-109.”
Yates returned to the states later in World War II and trained as a pilot. He continued to advance from the late 1940s through the 1950s as military aviation transitioned from propeller-driven planes to jet aircraft. He furthered his education along the way and commanded fighter squadrons.
He never doubted his ability to command at a higher level.
“Every fighter pilot I’ve ever known that was worth being called a fighter pilot wanted his own aircraft carrier some day,” Yates said. “Because he always felt he could do it better.”
He got his wish in 1967, when the Navy tapped him as the prospective commanding officer of the future John F. Kennedy.
The ship would occupy a unique place in naval history. The Navy already had commissioned the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, in 1961. Kennedy originally was ordered as a nuclear-powered ship, but that decision later was changed. It became the last conventionally powered U.S. aircraft carrier.
Yates had to bring on a new crew, instill his own style of command climate and prepare the ship for its first deployment.
There was also the commissioning ceremony in September 1968. The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated earlier that year and Yates remembered how everyone was concerned about security.
“I breathed a sigh of relief when the Navy Blue Angels flew over and we got the commissioning ceremony over,” he said. “The security had been successful. There were no problems.”
The stress didn’t stop there. The first time the ship set sail from Naval Station Norfolk, an electrical problem forced the crew to shut down the boilers. The ship headed for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel without helm control.
Families of sailors had raced from the naval base to the bridge, getting ahead of the ship. They were waving furiously, ushering the ship to sea and unaware of the problem. Thankfully, the ship was lined up to safely pass the bridge-tunnel.
“We figured it right,” he said. “We were going a little bit sideways, but we went right down the middle. It was just silent. Everything had been shut down.”
The problem was fixed and the ship continued on. Later in the trip, the ship underwent a refueling and there was a more welcome moment. Dolphins galore swam alongside the Kennedy, a sight Yates said he will never forget.
“I think that was probably the greatest welcome to the seas any ship has ever had,” he said. “It was a remarkable experience.”
No time to relax
Capt. FitzPatrick, a native of upstate New York, went to Cornell University on an ROTC scholarship. He had a young man’s taste for adventure and gravitated to the life of a naval aviator.
“It was just a great career,” he said. “I think I would have gone nuts if I had gone straight into a desk job.”
He took command of the Kennedy in October 2004 with the ship in the Arabian Gulf and fighter jets were flying combat sorties into Iraq. About one month later, the U.S. began Operation Phantom Fury, a furious bid to liberate Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad.
FitzPatrick had to hit the ground running.
“The ship had to perform,” FitzPatrick said.
He quickly found the Kennedy to his liking. The ship had a natural rhythm to it — it’s hard to describe, but unmistakable when a commander experiences it, he said.
“This is a hard business, long days and short nights,” he said. “But the crew was operationally focused and stayed on mission.”
The Kennedy was relieved later in November and sailed home. On Dec. 30, the Navy announced its intention to decommission the ship.
FitzPatrick made it his mission to stay engaged with the crew, which had a lot of questions. The ship had been through a challenging time, and not only because of a busy combat tour.
The Kennedy “was underfunded for much of her lifetime, particularly late in life,” FitzPatrick said. The evidence was plain to see — corrosion work, the need for maintenance — but the crew still shined.
“What I remember most is how resilient the crew was in keeping that ship up and operating under difficult conditions,” he said. “What I remember is being surrounded by incredibly talented people.”
When it came to talk of decommissioning, FitzPatrick answered questions as best he could.
“I found the best way to do it was to be honest with them — here’s what I know. I realize it’s not satisfactory. I got it. But it’s all we know right now. It was a constant drumbeat of conversation.”
FitzPatrick was not the Kennedy’s final commanding officer. In May 2006, he was relieved by then-Capt. Todd A. Zechin. The ship ultimately was decommissioned in March 2007.
As for the new John F. Kennedy, FitzPatrick said it’s nice to see the name live on, but a ship is only a gray metal hull until the crew comes aboard.
“There are still a lot of people who are emotionally attached to the ship,” he said. “But I think they are emotionally attached to the experience. It’s all about the people. It’s all about being part of a team.”