“I read the news today, oh boy” - The Beatles “A Day in the Life”
The U.S. Navy recently announced it had sold the USS John F. Kennedy, CV-67 to a Texas recycling firm, International Shipbreaking Limited, based in Brownsville for the price of a single penny. Since billions of dollars were spent on the construction, later retro-fitting, and maintenance of the warship named after our assassinated 35th president, a one cent price tag seemed like a rude gesture not only to American taxpayers, but also the generations of men and women who served aboard the vessel.
The Navy spent an additional $15 million in 2007 when the ship was decommissioned and Earl Industries in Jacksonville, Florida was awarded an inactivation contract. They drained fluids, tore down catapults, deactivated pumps, aircraft elevators, generators, boats, and aircraft cranes prepping the ship for the mothball fleet. An impassioned movement to have the JFK placed in museum status was denied by the Navy in 2017.
I first saw the JFK at Pier 12 in Norfolk, Virginia when I walked up its gangplank with a sea bag over my shoulder and reported for duty in March of 1969. It was the third of five Navy ships I would be stationed on during my six years as a Naval Reservist, and the one I stayed on the longest.
The ship had been christened in May of 1967, a month after I had joined up, three days past my 19th birthday. Nine-year-old Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, the late president’s daughter, smashed a bottle of champagne against the bow as her brother John, Jr., her mother Jackie, and President Lyndon B. Johnson looked on. The aircraft carrier was commissioned in September of 1968 and had recently returned from shakedown maneuvers at Guantanamo (“Gitmo” in Navy lingo) Bay, Cuba when I joined the crew.
I had already served on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, CV-42 (the “Rusty Rosie”) where it had been getting revamped in dry dock at Portsmouth, Virginia after duty off Vietnam so I was familiar with the intimidating size and rabbit warren of decks, ladders, and passageways built into carriers. But the JFK was an even larger version of such ships, as well as being the last conventionally powered one. Its flight deck was more than 1,000 feet long, it was over 250 feet across at its widest point, and was 23 stories tall from the keel to the top deck, the signal bridge where I was stationed. When the full complement of pilots and aviation crews were aboard it the ship carried almost 5,500 people. It was indeed a floating city, albeit a very well-armed one.
We left for a nine month tour of duty in the Mediterranean Sea the month after I went on board. The JFK relieved the USS Forrestal, CV-59 in Rota, Spain before we steamed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Unknown to me at the time, as my eyes watched the other carrier, another set of eyes in that ship’s pilot house was looking back at me. “Chuck” Carr, son of renowned zoologist Archie Carr, Jr. and an old friend of my family’s was a quartermaster on the Forrestal. I found this out at my father’s memorial service at the Bronx Zoo some 12 years later when Chuck and I reminisced about time we’d both spent in Florida, Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and in the Navy. It is indeed a small world.
I was mustered out of active Navy service from the JFK the following year with three more years of active reserve time to do before getting an honorable discharge. The ship had been my home and workplace for 13 months and I was glad to resume a more normal civilian life. But one copper penny for a warship that served the United States honorably for four decades still seems a blight on its good name.
Ex-sailor Dexter K. Oliver is a freelance writer, wildlife consultant, and monitor of the human condition from Duncan, AZ.