Backstory: Remembering the 'Mighty O'
Hundreds of veterans gathered to bid farewell to the USS Oriskany in a requiem for the ship and a reunion of men.
No one could predict how the end would be, but they all agreed on one thing: She wouldn't be alone. They came by the carload from places as far away as California and Washington, bringing wives, children, and grandchildren. She had been both shelter and home - forging a bond so formidable between them that not even death could rip it asunder. They needed to see her one more time.Skip to next paragraph
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Silently, the veterans of the USS Oriskany, a Korean War-era aircraft carrier, huddled together, collars turned up against the wind, hats drawn low to hide tears as they stood on the decks of some 400 charter and pleasure boats dotting the Gulf of Mexico in a loose semicircle Wednesday morning. This was her moment, her final battle, and they were determined to do it right. Thirty-seven minutes later, she was gone, a puff of grey in an azure sky - scuttled 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., in a 212-foot deep watery grave, where it will serve another function for a nation, as an artificial reef.
War has a way of creating bonds that are less ephemeral than those formed in a college dorm or in the cafeteria at work. They are forged in the crucible of conflict, and, in the case of a ship, by living khaki cheek by jowl with mates for months at a time at sea. Many of the crews' ties on the Oriskany - the "Mighty O," as it was called - were cast, too, during Vietnam, a war in which some servicemen to this day still feel the sting of being misunderstood or maligned by a nation.
"I was really looking forward to this," says Bill Williams, who was part of the original crew present at the aircraft carrier's 1950 commissioning in New York. He is referring to the ship's sinking, but, more emotionally, to his reunion with shipmate Eddie Vargas. Mr. Vargas drove in from San Antonio Friday night with his wife, Orfa, to witness the Oriskany's last voyage. "It seemed like it would never get here," says Mr. Williams.
It is a bittersweet day for Williams, marking the end of an era and the revival of a friendship that never faded, even over 53 years and more than 700 miles. They had originally planned to meet in 2004, but hurricane Ivan intervened.
"On the ship, they teach you to depend on each other, to stick right by one another," says Williams. "We didn't question it, we just did it."
With as many as 3,200 men aboard the 888-foot carrier at any given moment, teamwork wasn't just a slogan: It was vital for the ship's operation and the company's safety. An aircraft carrier can be a dangerous place, and there's no room for mistakes. "You're just like a family," says Mr. Vargas. "You become close-knit. Everybody has to do a certain job, and you respect each other."
Tragedy has that uniting power as well, and the Oriskany is no stranger to it. Both Vargas and Williams lost a friend, ship photographer Thomas McGraw, who, along with another man, was killed while photographing the landing of a plane that accidentally dropped a bomb onto the flight deck, spraying shrapnel. A fire killed 44 men in 1966. "You know you're in danger, but you don't think about being scared until it's over with," says Williams. "You don't have time to be fearful."
John Labie, who served on the Oriskany in 1968 during Vietnam, agrees. "There's just a bonding," he says. "You might not even know who the other guy is, but you look after him."