When we said goodbye to the USS Oriskany

A rusted ship moved men to tears. And that was before she slipped beneath the sea.

A day before the USS Oriskany (CV-34) was scheduled to be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico last week, Denny Earl, a naval aviator attached to the venerable aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War with Attack Squadron 163, bade farewell to his old ship in a dazzlingly audacious way.

Now a contract pilot for the Navy involved in navigator training, Mr. Earl was at the controls of a T-39 Sabreliner when he headed for the site 24 miles southeast of Pensacola where the "Mighty O" would be scuttled the following morning in 212 feet of water.

"I locked it up on the radar, dropped down to 500 feet, and executed a carrier break at the bow," he told me matter-of-factly aboard the Lady Val, one of 400 private yachts and charter boats that had sailed out to observe the giant vessel's unprecedented transformation into the world's largest artificial reef. "Then I turned downwind and dirtied up," pilot talk for lowering the landing gear and flaps; he then "rolled into the groove for a carrier approach" to the flight deck.

Earl had no intention of touching down, of course, but he did glide past the port side of the "old girl" at an altitude of 150 feet, rolling slightly to the right as he flew by, and snapped a smart salute. He then "cleaned up the airplane" and headed back to Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Earl had every good reason to feel sentimental, his unconventional tribute notwithstanding. During a bombing mission over North Vietnam on Nov. 20, 1967, both of his legs were shattered by groundfire that ripped through his A4 Skyhawk. Instead of "punching out" over hostile territory, the lieutenant junior grade returned to his ship in the Tonkin Gulf, pounding one fist against the cockpit glass to fight the pain while pulling off a perfect landing with the other. In an instant, Denny Earl had become an Oriskany legend, sharing glory with Sen. John McCain, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Jim Stockdale, and pioneering astronaut Alan Shepard, among so many others.

For days leading up to the reefing, hundreds of other Oriskany men converged on Pensacola to pay their respects in ways that were far less spectacular, but profoundly poignant all the same. Aboard the Lady Val alone, were several dozen veterans, including Chuck Tinker, a fighter pilot who survived the Oct. 26, 1966, fire that killed 44 officers and crew, by squeezing himself through a porthole onto a catwalk; and Jack Kenyon, my commanding officer on the 1969 cruise, and surrogate father to the 3,200 men who sailed with us.

People who have never served aboard a naval ship can be excused for wondering how it is that grown men could cry so freely and without embarrassment at the sight of an obsolete leviathan they once called home being sent to the bottom in what amounted to a sailor's burial at sea. "Ships have a way of imparting something of themselves to those who sail in them," is the way Captain Kenyon describes the dynamic that takes place between a vessel and her crew. He said that two years ago when news of the reefing was announced, and his words still resonate quite powerfully for me today.

As fighting machines, ships are very definitely masculine - man-of-war is a well-known expression that has been around for centuries to describe a formidable ship of the line - but as personifications, they unfailingly are feminine, and typically referred to with the pronoun "she."

Why such a paradox happens to be the case is anyone's guess, but beyond dispute is the emotional pull these vessels have upon the people who serve aboard them. My sense is that we regard ships as being female because they are the quintessence of comfort and shelter - they become our homes - and homes, more often than not, are held together by wives and mothers.

Those of us who served aboard Oriskany in Vietnam recall an era of national unrest, a time when so much acrimony was directed at anyone who happened to wear a uniform. There were three certainties we always relied on: We knew we had our shipmates and our skipper - what Shakespeare called "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" - and we had our ship.

The thought that Oriskany might be reduced to scrap or towed, as once proposed, to Tokyo Bay where it would have become a gaudy theme park, were not options any of us regarded as appropriate. But in 2003 came word of a novel idea that would allow the ship to become what some have called the Great Carrier Reef, enabling it to withdraw with dignity, and a measure of functionality to boot.

It is estimated that as many as 45,000 men served aboard Oriskany during 26 years of active duty that included 17 overseas deployments, most of them to Korea and Vietnam. On its date with destiny nine days ago, our thoughts and prayers went out to the 94 airmen who never survived their missions, to the 19 who were prisoners of war, and to the 44 sailors who perished in the 1966 fire.

Still very much the reliable ship that always answered the call, Oriskany cut a majestic figure on May 17. At 10:26 a.m., 22 synchronized explosions were set off. Plumes of brown smoke rose through the stack high above the island structure, and billowed out the open doorways. The end came 36 minutes later, swiftly and without incident.

Stripped of the thick wooden planks that had cushioned its massive flight deck for half a century, the 900-foot-long flat-top had acquired a veneer of rust. The Mighty O rose sharply at the bow, then dipped a few degrees to port before slipping beneath the surface, a glaze of Navy gold shining brightly in the morning sun.

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of five books, most recently "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World." He was a public affairs officer aboard Oriskany during the 1969 and 1970 cruises to the Western Pacific.

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