Tomorrow at 1:00pm my father’s favorite Navy aircraft carrier, the USS CONSTELLATION CV-64, will set sail on her last voyage. She’s headed to Brownsville, Texas to fearlessly face the torches of the ship breaking company, All Star Metals. It’s a harsh ending for a ship that gallantly served our nation during some of the most trying of times, the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom to name but a few.
Lovingly nicknamed Connie by her crew, she was commissioned on October 27, 1961 and was the first warship to launch strikes against North Vietnam interests. In 1981 Connie earned the title of “America’s Flagship” by then president Ronald Reagan. At one time she was the Navy’s finest ship, was deployed over twenty times to the Western Pacific and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2003, after 41 admirable years of service, Connie was decommission at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, CA and was sent to rest at Puget Sound Naval Station, WA where she awaited her fate.
Dad’s last tour in his four year Navy career was aboard Connie. He spent nine months on a West Pac tour, visiting Hong Kong and the Philippines in 1969-1970. He was part of the squadron known then as VAH-10, or Heavy Attack Squadron 10, now called VAQ-129 which is still stationed at Whidbey Island, where Dad spent two years of service. One of his most exciting memories aboard Connie was the time he had to stand deck watch on the flight deck during high seas, while waves broke over her bow. A distance he says was 90ft. He had to harness himself to a pad eye on deck, and take cover inside the wheel well of a Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, just so he wouldn’t be blown or tossed overboard. It was this same aircraft he crewed for midair refueling operations. While sailing the calm seas, he recounts the times he snoozed in the forward nets along the flight deck of the ship, where he watched the bow slice through the ocean below.
Also moored alongside USS CONSTELLATION, is USS INDEPENDENCE, another ship that Dad has a dozen or so stories about. Dad spent most of his Navy career aboard the USS INDEPENDENCE touring the Mediterranean. My favorite story, which happens to be quite suspenseful, was when his buddy, Minner as he called him, was blown overboard at night due to an F4 Phantom aircraft gunning its engine at the same time that Minner walked upon the flight deck. Dad witnessed his friend taking the plunge and threw his flashlight and life vest over before signaling an emergency. His friend was rescued, and never set foot on the flight deck again. Shortly after returning to port he was discharged from the Navy. I understand why. What a terrifying ordeal.
The most comical story is the one about the “phantom shitter”, as Dad calls him, that was aboard the INDEPENDENCE during a Med cruise. The “phantom” would leave bags of pooh in the most mysterious of places, calling over the ship’s loud speakers as to where he left it. Dad said the phantom was never caught, but caused quite a stir among the Command. His account of the event is hilarious.
Just like Connie will soon disappear and the INDEPENDENCE to follow, the stories of service members like my father will also be lost to history, if not written down. Luckily, my father is still able to remember his Navy days, but that may not always be the case. Accompanying Dad to Bremerton to see Connie and the INDEPENDENCE before they become just distant memories had been a goal of mine for years.
After listening to these stories all my life, I had developed an attachment and fondness to these ships. Finally faced with their immense presence I couldn’t help but become emotional. I was worried that seeing the ships in their depressed state might cause Dad great anguish. As he gazed upon them from shore, I could see his bottom lip quiver as he said “I just can’t believe they’re going to cut them up.” Was I wrong to have brought Dad to see them after 44 years? I don’t think so. I could tell he was glad to see them, but also saddened.
These two ships took my father far from home. As a farm boy from central Texas, who spent his summers plowing his father’s wheat field, there was nothing he wanted more than a chance to see the world. His chance was the Navy. Dad joined the Navy without even telling his parents. Farm life was not for him.
From Texas the INDEPENDENCE and CONSTELLATION took him to the beautiful sandy shores of the blue Mediterranean, along the French Rivera, to Italy, to Turkey, Greece. Then on to the skies over Vietnam and the Pacific, to the Philippines, and Japan. It was the only time in his life (besides piloting his own airplane) that he truly felt alive, fulfilled and happy. For him to relive all that, if only for a moment, was a priceless gift I would offer him again. He’s the reason I have the love of travel. It developed from the stories I heard about these two mighty ships.
It would have been nice to see Connie made into a museum like the USS LEXINGTON CV-16 in Corpus, Christi…but that’s not her fate. As we drove off I tried to put it all into perspective. Each ship moored there had served their purpose. They were the best machines of their time. They were revered, loved and gave many service members a lifetime of memories to share with their loved ones. Those memories, when preserved on paper and passed down through the generations will last forever, unlike the metal that holds these old girls together which will rust and give way to the wind. So, in the end Connie and the INDEPENDENCE will be preserved…in the minds of all those who encountered her.