“It ties a loop around almost half a century,” Capt. Todd Zecchin, the ship’s 34th and final commanding officer, said of the event.
Martinelli, 68, recalled planes on deck loaded with nuclear weapons and guarded by armed Marines during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I thought it was a certainty that I’d never see my family again,” he said. “It was as scary as it could get.”
A Russian bomber once buzzed them so low that sailors could see the pilot’s face, said Gerald Binning, 68, of Minneapolis, another plank owner.
Martinelli and others came full circle from all corners of the country.
“The beginning and the end,” he said. “You don’t get that many chances in life to see something like that.”
“I just had to come back,” said David Hostetter, 59, of Jasper, Ind.
“I was here when they commissioned it so I thought I’d be here when they decommission it,” said Ron Dobry, 68, of Phoenix.In war and in peace, Kitty Hawk and her crew stood the watch. From the skies over Vietnam to the Arabian Gulf; Somalia to RIMPAC – Rolling Thunder to Operation Enduring Freedom she was first to fight and last to leave. Many carriers came and went during the Vietnam War; Kitty Hawk deployed and fought every year the US was engaged. When Iranian militants seized the US embassy and took our diplomats hostage, Kitty Hawk was one of the carriers surged to the region in response — ironically twenty-two years later she would return in a unique role, as a forward base for special ops helicopters while operating a portion of her airwing in support of the action to hunt down and destroy the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on the US. In peace, she was noteworthy as well. While on deployment in 1992, Kitty Hawk spent nine days off the coast of Somalia supporting U.S. Marines and coalition forces Involved in Operation Restore Hope. On 16 December 1992, five air traffic controllers from Kitty Hawk were sent aboard USS Leahy (CG 53) to establish approach control services in and out of Mogadishu, Somalia, in support
of Operation Restore Hope. Approaching aircraft were picked up from a VAW-114 E-2C Hawkeye, which tracked flights and issued advisories from about 200 miles out. Once the flights were within 50 miles, the Leahy team took over and led them to within visual range of the airport, about 10 miles away.
Time eventually caught up with Kitty Hawk and now, the last of the conventionally-powered carriers would need to be retired to make room for the newest of carriers, the George H. W. Bush – herself the last of the Nimitz-class carriers. While volumes only begin to speak of the exploits of this carrier, perhaps the best were said by Gen. Tommy Franks, CENTCOM commander, who visited the ship during Operation Enduring Freedom. In his remarks, he expressed the deep gratitude of a nation, saying:
“The United States of America owes you a debt,” Gen. Franks continued. “You stand tall. You serve where you’re told. Without (the Navy), we could not have done what has been done. And without you, we cannot do what we are going to do. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We all know who made the beginning on Sept. 11, 2001. And all of you are going to be what makes an end.”
Fitting words for a ship who saw all manner of action for the better part of her 48 years of commissioned service. And now she sits, boilers cold, spaces preserved at a holding pier near Seattle – for what? The future is dim. While efforts are underway to bring her to North Carolina, near her namesake Atlantic dunes to serve as a museum, it is a slender thread of hope. A 60,000 tom carrier is a daunting structure to keep in shape – for that is the Navy’s hard requirement for ships sent to be museums. Like as not, she will either meet the breakers torch like so many of her famous relatives – Enterprise and Coral Sea to name but a few, or like her sister ship America, scheduled to be sunk at sea in tests to make future carriers even more battle ready. Perhaps, sad as it is, that would be the most fitting end for this great warship. For now – let’s just remember her glory days and those who sailed in her and flew from her decks.