Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Farewell to a once-mighty ship


Pensacola News Journal
By Troy Moon
May 07, 2006

For thousands of Navy sailors nationwide, the aircraft carrier Oriskany was a floating home away from home.

Some first boarded the 888-foot "Mighty O" as mere teenagers, and it was there they came of age.

The Oriskany took them to exotic ports of call such as Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines -- places most never would have visited otherwise -- but only because those places were close to war zones in Korea and Vietnam.

Crew members watched pilots leave on bombing runs and never return. They raced to save the lives of friends and crewmen during a mighty, tragic fire.

They buried some of their dead at sea and mourned the missing, such as Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and held prisoner for five years.

On May 17, the Oriskany will take on its final role as the world's biggest artificial reef and diving destination.

Weather permitting, it will be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico -- about 22.5 miles southeast of Pensacola Pass in 212 feet of water.

Hundreds of the ship's veterans will begin arriving in Pensacola at the end of this week to pay tribute to the Oriskany and her memories.

For some former crew members, the Oriskany's final resting place at the bottom of the Gulf is fitting.

"The Oriskany is going down to the depths, so to speak," said Robert Price, 59, of Pensacola, who lost two comrades in the tragic ship fire of 1966 that killed 44 crew members.

"She's joining those shipmates. She'll be not only a memorial for those who were lost, but an opportunity for fishermen, divers, historical tourists, eco-tourists -- all will get a chance to ask what the ship is, what did they do, who were the people who served aboard?

"It's a memorial."

More than 400 Oriskany veterans from throughout the nation are expected to attend a reception and memorial service on Saturday at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, said Debie Panyko, who is part of the organizing committee working in conjunction with the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

The former crew members, many of whom haven't seen each other for decades, will swap old war stories and toast fallen friends. They will watch short films on the history of the ship, which was built at the New York Naval Shipyard in 1945. And although the reception is the only "official" event for the veterans, some will board charter boats on May 17 to watch the ship's sinking from afar.

Elvah Jones, 87, of Pensacola has such sad and poignant memories of the Oriskany that she isn't sure whether she'll attend the memorial service.

Her son, Lt. Ralph "Skip" E. Foulks. Jr., was declared missing in action on Jan. 5, 1968, after he flew an A-4E Skyhawk off the Oriskany, then went down during an armed scouting mission over North Vietnam.

The 24-year-old's remains were repatriated in 1988 as part of a unilateral recovery from the Vietnamese government. He is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

"It brings back too many heartaches," Jones said of all the Oriskany hubbub. "I went on a dependents' cruise on the Oriskany in 1967 before it left for Vietnam. Skip was aboard the ship as a new, young ensign. We went under the Bay Bridge (in San Francisco) and under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the good old Pacific. Skip was my escort. It was a glorious day."

The Oriskany had many glorious days.

Commissioned in September 1950, the Oriskany made one Korean War combat cruise from September 1952 to May 1953, but saw most of her battle time during the Vietnam War.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the ship put out to sea 16 times, completed more than 20,000 combat sorties and delivered nearly 10,000 tons of ordnance against enemy forces.

Named after the Battle of Oriskany in the Revolutionary War, the ship began her Vietnam War duties in 1965. The ship's most tragic day was Oct. 26, 1966, when a fire erupted on the starboard side of the forward hangar bay, spread through five decks and killed 44 men.

"The fire had so much effect on me," said Price, a Navy yeoman, who was working in administration aboard the Oriskany.

"You lose some of that innocence. The commercial says it's not just a job, it's an adventure. But it's also deadly.

"After the fire, with those losses, I have forever to this day carried with me a sense of the sacrifice people make," he said. "They're doing their jobs, serving their country to the best of their ability. And they had every expectation of going home and enjoying a life, and yet they weren't able to. I was able to live and have a family, and now I have grandchildren, and those people didn't have a chance to do that."

Some of the men were buried at sea, and to many Oriskany veterans, the ship's final voyage to the bottom of the Gulf is a fitting tribute to their memory.

"It's an honor that we're sinking her here," said Steve Howard, who was an aircraft mechanic aboard the Oriskany in 1971. "We can let future generations go out and dive on her.

"The first ship I was on, the Shangri-La, well, they scrapped her and made her into razor blades. Being the Cradle of Naval Aviation, it's only fitting that the Oriskany come here. The ship will be a tribute -- especially to those who died in the fire."

The effects of the fire, and the lingering pain, stayed with the Oriskany until she was decommissioned in September 1976.

"It was never forgotten," said Art Giberson of Pensacola, who was in charge of the Oriskany's photo lab from 1969 to 1970. "After the fire, it was overhauled, and a year after that, I went on. The spaces had been totally renovated because of the fire."

But Giberson and others said they wouldn't trade their time aboard the ship for anything.

"It was a big ship. It was much like a city," Giberson said. "You probably only knew a handful of people outside of your department."

Many of the memories veterans have of the Oriskany are not of work on the ship, but downtime.

"I was the USS Oriskany pie-eating champion," said Jerry Marbut, 54, who served aboard the Oriskany from 1972 to 1973.

"I won $100. I just loved the Oriskany. It had a great crew, and we had a lot of great times. We went to Japan, we went snorkeling, we went on picnics. I just truly enjoyed myself. I even re-enlisted aboard the Oriskany."

R.L. Estes, 73, of Tupelo, Miss., plans on being in Pensacola for this weekend's memorial and reunion. He served in the Oriskany's supply department from 1950 to 1952.

He was only a teen when he first boarded the ship on its maiden voyage after commissioning.

"I was so young, and it was all so new to me," he said. "There were so many people on board that it seemed like half the time we were going through chow lines. But there was always something to do. We had all kinds of liberty over there and visited all these countries. And on the ship, they had movies, they had boxing. But a lot of the time was boring, too."

And cramped. Very cramped.

"My berthing compartment was right under a flight cable on the flight deck," said Howard, the ex-aircraft mechanic. "You'd work 12-hour shifts, either days or nights. When they were flying days, I'd be in my bunk, and above me the aircraft would be catching the cables and banging on the deck. It sounded like an explosion. But you got used to it after a while."

Now, decades later, the crew members of the Oriskany will meet once more.

"It's going to be surprising to see everyone," said Price, who later became a Navy chaplain. "I look nothing like I did at 19. So, without name tags, it's going to be hard to know who is who." (Name tags will be available at the reception.)

But Price and other crew members are happy that the Oriskany finally is coming to rest in a proud Navy town that will cherish her.

Some veterans pushed for the Oriskany to be refurbished and turned into a museum, but many who have seen the Oriskany in recent years said that wouldn't be prudent.

"I fly over her, and it's kind of sad to see it all beat up," said Dennis Earl, 65, a corporate pilot.

In 1967, Earl stayed in the air more than 20 minutes after a machine gun bullet pierced his plane's fuselage and smashed bones in both of his legs. He had flown from the Oriskany's deck for a bombing raid over Vietnam.

"The ship looks pretty grim," Earl said of the Oriskany.

Giberson originally didn't like the idea of sinking the Oriskany.

"I don't think any sailor wants to see his old ship sunk," said Giberson, who is writing a book on the Oriskany to be sold at local dive shops and museums. "But the ship now is not the same ship. It looks like a floating pile of junk.

"Now, I know my ship is still serving others. I remember a powerful, powerful war ship. And I'm proud I was aboard."


My father served aboard The Might O
sometime thru 1963-1967. He was a BT2. I really don't like the fact that they sunk her. I guess she is better off. Instead of her rusting away she will be Forever Frozen in Time.
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