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.

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."

The ship itself has lived quite a life. More than 45,000 men served on the Oriskany - named after a Revolutionary War battle site - between 1950 and 1976. It was among the ships used by President John F. Kennedy as a show of force during the Cuban missile crisis. Later, 12 pilots who flew off the Oriskany, including US Sen. John McCain, became North Vietnamese prisoners of war. The ship has been used as a backdrop for at least two Hollywood movies.

Even though Mr. Labie went on to work aboard two other aircraft carriers, he still feels closest to his Oriskany shipmates. Wednesday, in fact, marked the first time he has participated in any military reunion since he left the service in 1970. He didn't feel like he belonged at the local VFWs, which had more World War II veterans, and after active duty in the Vietnam War, he found it difficult to adjust to the antiwar movement sweeping across Florida State University, where he was attending college.

For one thing, at 25, he was older than most of the other incoming students. And then there was his hair. The neatly-trimmed cut immediately branded him as a participant in what he calls "a hated war."

Eventually, he grew his hair long and tried to fit in, suppressing the feelings that came flooding back Wednesday as he watched the Oriskany slowly sink. "Usually I make jokes about everything, but this was kind of a tear-jerker," says Labie.

Together the men watched the Oriskany succumb to 500 pounds of explosives, slowly listing portside and filling with water before finally throwing its hurricane bow heavenward and sinking below the surface. When it was over, many of the boats, gathered in a ring, sounded their horns in tribute. A moment of silence passed and then there was a bang from the deck of the Necessity. Labie had fired a blank from a miniature cannon.

Beside him, fellow Vietnam veteran Lloyd Quiter openly wept, pulling a boatswain's pipe from his pocket and playing his tribute before saluting the ship one last time. All was quiet.

And then, suddenly, it was as if the entire flotilla breathed a collective sigh of relief. Gone were the fears that the beloved ship would be "made into razor blades," veteran-speak for the Navy's usual method of ship disposal: selling them for scrap metal. Some people hugged, others laughed and began chatting easily again as the charter boats swung away from the scene and tacked a hasty clip back to shore.

"When it finally went down, it was like we didn't have to worry about it not being done anymore," says Williams. "This way, it's still doing service for mankind."

The Oriskany will be opened to scuba divers as early as next week, part of a new program by the Navy to turn abandoned ships into artificial reefs and boost the local tourism. The Oriskany is the largest ship ever sunk for such service. "It was such a beautiful ship - brand-new when we got on it - and we kept it looking as new as we could," says Vargas. "Now it'll be there forever."

Williams hopes his renewed friendship with Vargas endures, too. They're planning to see each other again for the annual Oriskany reunion, held this year in Tunica, Miss., in September. "I really hated to leave him," says Williams. "That's the bad part about seeing someone like that - you know you're going to have to separate again. But you know, 53 years is a lifetime for a lot of people, and here we are - still going."

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