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Senior shipbuilders fondly remember the 'old' USS John F. Kennedy

In a 2017 file photo, the USS John F. Kennedy is moored to a pier in the Delaware River at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia, Pa.

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By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: December 4, 2019

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — More than 3,200 people from Newport News Shipbuilding worked on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, which will be christened Saturday.

But for some longtime shipbuilders, this isn’t the only Kennedy that comes to mind.

The first USS John F. Kennedy was launched in 1967 at what was then called Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. James Clemons had started at the shipyard three years earlier and worked on the Kennedy as a shipfitter apprentice.

Today he’s involved in production planning for the Virginia-class submarine program. Do the math: Clemons has been around the Newport News waterfront in one way or another for 55 years.

As a young shipbuilder working on his first carrier, Clemons came across a problem that still bedevils workers today.

“You could get lost very quickly,” he said. “You would get used to walking in a certain path to your destination, but then they would close the hole and you’d have to figure out another way around.”

Henry Famularo has a different attachment to the old Kennedy.

After joining the Navy out of high school in 1978, he was assigned to an F-14 squadron that deployed on the aircraft carrier. Famularo hadn’t traveled much as a child, and the flight deck was a long way from his hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.

“It was eye-opening,” he said. “You got to meet people from all over the world. One of my best friends was a kid from Tennessee who didn’t have a pair of shoes until he joined the Navy. That’s a true story."

He remembered being amazed at the ship’s capabilities: the movement of weapons and aircraft, the feeding of thousands of sailors, the feeling of being part of a floating city.

“I took it for granted back then,” he said. “I had a no idea what went into building one of these things.”

Short answer: It wasn’t easy.

The Kennedy was America’s last conventionally powered aircraft carrier. It was more than 1,000 feet long and could go to sea with nearly 80 aircraft, according to Navy data. The ship’s crew topped 3,000. The air wing that sailed with the ship added about 2,500 more personnel.

Much has been made about the new construction tools employed on the new John F. Kennedy, the second ship of the Gerald R. Ford class. Shipbuilders now use iPads, digital imaging and augmented reality.

Back in the 1960s, Clemons had more basic tools as a young shipfitter. Even reading blueprints was a skill all its own.

“We didn’t know what a computer was,” he joked. “It was all paper. You had to go through it and figure out what went where. It was using your mind.”

It didn’t seem to slow them down. The Navy awarded the contract for Kennedy in April 1964 and the keel was laid in October of that year. Following its May 1967 christening, the ship was commissioned into service in September 1968.

In April 1969 ? less than one year later ? the ship was deployed in the Atlantic and already being shadowed by Soviet reconnaissance aircraft. Navy records note that such monitoring would become commonplace.

The ship served through the Cold War and into the post-9/11 era, finally decommissioned in March 2007.

Famularo moved on from the Kennedy and retired from the Navy in 2008 as a lieutenant commander and promptly joined the shipyard. He now works in aviation ship integration. When he learned the Navy was naming a new carrier for President Kennedy, it brought back memories of his days as a young sailor.

“I grew up a lot," he said. “I learned a lot about the capabilities of the ship and what American engineering can do.”

Now he wonders how the Navy’s family tree will extend from one Kennedy to another. A sailor who served on his old ship might have raised a pilot that will be deployed on the new Kennedy.

“Maybe their son is going to be flying jets off there,” he said.

©2019 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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