Tuesday, May 16, 2006

 

Veterans reunite for USS Oriskany sinking off Pensacola Beach

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The Ledger
By Melissa Nelson
May 14, 2006


PENSACOLA, Fla. - Hundreds of Navy veterans who grew to love the famed aircraft carrier USS Oriskany will see their old ship off on her final voyage - a trip to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where she will become a massive artificial reef.

Many, like Boyd Tong of Phoenix, plan to rent boats and watch as the Oriskany is sunk 24 miles off Pensacola Beach on Wednesday morning.

"I expect it will be a little emotional," Tong said as a Navy band played "Anchors Aweigh" at Pensacola Naval Air Station tribute for the Oriskany on Saturday night. More 500 veterans, spanning the Oriskany's nearly 30 years of service, attended the Navy's tribute to the "Mighty O."

Retired Capt. Jack Kenyon, 83, who commanded the ship from March 1968 to September 1969, addressed the group on behalf of the ship's 22 former commanding officers. He read from his 1969 farewell speech to his crew, which he commanded off Vietnam.

"Having been privileged to command the Oriskany I feel that I know the ship rather well," Kenyon read. "I know her abilities, her strengths, her willingness and her dogged determination to do a job well. In short, I know you - the men of the Oriskany who embody these qualities and who are the very life blood of the ship."

The ship is set to become the world's largest intentionally created artificially reef - an end many say is fitting for her long and storied history. It will be the first ship sunk under a pilot program to dispose of old warships through reefing.

City leaders hope it will turn the area into a destination for sport divers from around the world.

"I would rather see it sunk at sea, it's spent it's life at sea, than see it torn up by the salvage yards," said David Brooks, a petty officer from Mount Dora who recorded information about aircraft catapult operations aboard the ship.

"God made that machine," said Brooks, who has asked his wife to scatter his ashes over the Oriskany site when he dies.

He will be on hand Monday as the Oriskany is towed from Pensacola Naval Air Station to its sinking site. On Wednesday, explosives will be detonated inside the aircraft carrier, slowly sending it to the sea floor.

Pensacola leaders lobbied hard for their city to become the site of the Oriskany reefing, winning out over larger cities. City leaders believe the town, dubbed the "Cradle of Naval Aviation" for its history of training Navy fliers, is a fitting resting place for the aircraft carrier.

The ship was originally set to go down in summer 2004, but plans were delayed by environmental permit problems and hurricanes, sending project costs soaring to more than $20 million.

But Rear Adm. Charles S. Hamilton II, the Navy's executive officer for ships, said the end result will be worth the wait, calling the reefing "the next chapter of Oriskany's life of service and contribution."

"In many ways it feels as though this has always been her destination," he said.

The Oriskany was commissioned in 1950, serving through the Korean and Vietnam wars, and decommissioned in 1976. The ship was among those used by President John F. Kennedy as a show of force in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.

Twelve Oriskany pilots, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., became North Vietnamese prisoners of war.

Richard O. Duggin of Memphis was an 18-year-old petty officer working in the Oriskany's boiler room when the ship was commissioned in 1950.

Although it's been 53 years since he last saw the Oriskany, Duggin said the tribute "was worth a million dollars."

"I was just an 18-year-old kid who didn't want to plow no more. I'd say only 10 percent the crew had ever been to sea before. We didn't know what we were getting into," he said.

Fellow Oriskany Veterans Jim Becknell of Indiana and Bob Willey of Maine hadn't seen each other since they worked together as elevator operators aboard the Oriskany in 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam. But they found each other Sunday night.

They recalled fighting a famous 1966 magazine fire that killed 44, joking about a fellow crew member who had three days left on his tour and chose to jump overboard rather than face the flames. The man was picked up by a nearby ship and spent the day eating ice cream, they said.

Jack Witter of Fort Pierce served aboard the Oriskany from 1952 to 1953 as a petty officer working with aviation ordnance.

"I was an 18-year-old kid and I grew up aboard that ship. I saw a friend get killed when a bomb exploded on the deck," he said. "Back then, that ship was about the most exciting place in the world to me."


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