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Farewell: USS Enterprise Starred In History And Film

Dec 1, 2012
Originally published on December 2, 2012 1:17 pm

Sailors, veterans and their families are saying goodbye in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday to the USS Enterprise, which was the largest ship in the world and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when it was commissioned in 1961.

In its illustrious history, the Enterprise served at the center of international events for a half-century — from the Cuban missile crisis to Vietnam to the Iraq War.

And it had a distinguished Hollywood career as well, playing a leading role in the 1986 film Top Gun, which starred Tom Cruise as a young naval aviator.

When the Enterprise slipped into the waters off Norfolk for the first time, it was a modern marvel, more than 1,000 feet long. "She was certainly the largest warship built by any nation up to that time," says naval expert Norman Polmar.

It was literally a floating metropolis, a home to 5,000 sailors and the most cutting-edge engine of the day, powered by eight nuclear reactors. Polmar says sailors didn't fear radioactive leaks or explosions.

"No problems at all with the nuclear plant, absolutely none," he says. "Most of the people that I've spoken with who served in early nuclear ships thought it was just fantastic to be assigned to them."

"These were the fastest, the largest, the neatest ships in the world," he adds.

A Long Line Of Enterprise Ships

And even though the Enterprise was new, this was a ship with a history. It was the eighth to bear the name Enterprise.

The first was a British vessel, captured during the American Revolution and renamed by the man who led that raid — Benedict Arnold.

The first carrier named Enterprise saw intense action in the Pacific during World War II.

Less than a year after the new Enterprise came into service, it started making its own history. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, President John Kennedy, a former sailor himself, ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. The Enterprise and its sailors were sent to take part.

"All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port, when they're found to carry cargo of offensive weapons will be turned back," Kennedy said at the time.

Polmar, the naval historian, says that "when the ship departed from Norfolk they made their phone calls and said goodbye I hope I'm back here in a few days. They were scared that this was the end but they did their jobs."

The standoff lasted 13 days, before Soviet ships turned around. The Enterprise went on to set a world record by making a round-the-world cruise in two months in 1964 — the first ship to do so without refueling. Nuclear power meant the ship could cruise almost indefinitely.

A Role In The Vietnam War

By comparison, a World War II carrier could go about three days before it needed to refuel, according to retired Rear Adm. Eugene Tissot. He commanded the Enterprise during the closing days of the Vietnam War.

Some of the first bombing runs into North Vietnam flew from its deck in 1965 — and so did the last, says Tissot, who watched from the bridge in early 1973, in the last days of direct U.S. involvement in the fighting.

"The last sortie of the war we flew off Enterprise. And one of our F-4 pilots was shot down and killed," he recalls.

Vietnam was the last major combat the Enterprise would see for some time. But during the hiatus, it went to Hollywood. The ship was the setting for one of the top films of the 1980s, as Cruise, aka Maverick, trained to become a fighter pilot in Top Gun.

Hollywood also called on the Enterprise to chase the only known Soviet sub captain with a Scottish burr — think Sean Connery — in The Hunt for Red October.

A Return To Combat

The Enterprise would eventually find real adversaries once again.

In 2001, Vice Adm. John Morgan was on the flag bridge of the Enterprise when he got a phone call from an aide who told him the World Trade Center had been attacked. Morgan had been in command of the Enterprise battle group only three days.

"I reflexively picked up the phone and called the captain of the aircraft carrrier and said redirect the battle group to the coast of Pakistan and make best speed to do so," he says.

The ship was supposed to return to Norfolk. But Morgan's gut told him the attack was the work of Osama bin Laden, and the Enterprise would be going to war. "We wanted to get our nose pressed up against the glass in case they needed us," he says.

The Enterprise was needed. Its warplanes flew some of the first attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And two years later, in 2003, its pilots and crew would take part in another fight, this time against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Now, the Enterprise has come home to Norfolk for the last time, after more than 50 years at sea. The ship will be scrapped, but the most famous name in the Navy will live on. A new ship called the USS Enterprise is expected.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today in Norfolk, Virginia, sailors, veterans and their families will say goodbye to the USS Enterprise. She was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when she was commissioned in 1961. The Enterprise has served at the center of international events for half a century, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the war in Vietnam and to the Iraq War. NPR's Tom Bowman looks back at the iconic ship known as The Big E.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: When the Enterprise slipped into the waters off Norfolk for the first time, it was a modern marvel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is The Big E, the Enterprise. The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The largest ship in the world.

NORMAN POLMAR: She's a 1,088 feet.

BOWMAN: That's naval expert Norman Polmar.

POLMAR: She was certainly the largest warship built by any nation up to that time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Like most large cities, it has its own airport, offices, electrical repair shops, trucks and vehicles of all kinds.

BOWMAN: It was, literally, a floating metropolis with 5,000 residents and the most cutting-edge engine of the day, powered by eight nuclear reactors. Polmar says sailors weren't afraid of radioactive leaks or explosions.

POLMAR: No problems at all with the nuclear plant, absolutely none. Most of the people that I've spoken with who served in early nuclear ships thought it was just fantastic to be assigned to them.

BOWMAN: How come?

POLMAR: Because these were the fastest, the largest, the neatest ships in the world.

BOWMAN: Though new, this was a ship with a history, the eighth to bear the name Enterprise. The first was a British vessel, captured during the American Revolution, and renamed by the man who led that raid - Benedict Arnold. The first carrier named Enterprise saw intense action in the Pacific during World War II. Less than a year after the new Enterprise came into service, it started making its own history.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port, where they're found to carry cargoes of offensive weapons will be turned back.

BOWMAN: It was October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President John Kennedy ordered a naval blockade. The Enterprise and her sailors were sent to take part.

POLMAR: The ship departed for Norfolk, you know. They made their phone calls. Goodbye, I hope I'm back here in a few days.

BOWMAN: Again Norman Polmar.

POLMAR: They were scared that this was the end, but they did their jobs.

BOWMAN: The standoff lasted 13 days, before Soviet ships turned around. Two years later, the Enterprise went on a two-month round-the-world cruise - the first without refueling. Nuclear power meant the ship could cruise almost indefinitely. And how long could a World War II carrier go before fueling up?

REAR ADMIRAL EUGENE TISSOT: About three days.

BOWMAN: That's retired Rear Admiral Eugene Tissot. He's commanded the ship during Vietnam. Some of the first bombing runs into North Vietnam flew from the deck of the Enterprise in 1965. And so did the last. Admiral Tissot watched from the bridge in early 1973 in the final hours of the war.

TISSOT: The last sortie of the war we flew off Enterprise. And one of our F-4 pilots was shot down and killed.

BOWMAN: Vietnam was the last major combat the Enterprise would see for some time. Between fights the ship went Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP GUN ANTHEM")

BOWMAN: It was the setting for one of the blockbuster films of the 1980s. Home to Maverick and Goose...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOP GUN")

TOM CRUISE: (as Maverick) Tower, this Ghost Rider requesting a fly-by.

DUKE STROUD: (as Air Boss Johnson) Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.

BOWMAN: ...two of the pilots in "Top Gun." And the Enterprise found time to chase the only known Soviet sub captain with a Scottish burr in "The Hunt for Red October."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER")

SEAN CONNERY: (as Marko Ramius) And once more, we play our dangerous game - a game of chess against our old adversary, the American Navy.

BOWMAN: The Enterprise would eventually find real adversaries. Eleven years ago, Vice Admiral John Morgan was on the flag bridge of the Enterprise when he learned that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

VICE ADMIRAL JOHN MORGAN: You know, I reflexively picked up the phone and called the captain of the aircraft carrier and said redirect the battle group to the coast of Pakistan and make best speed to do so.

BOWMAN: The ship was supposed to return to Norfolk. But Morgan's gut told him this was bin Laden and the Enterprise would be going to war.

MORGAN: We wanted to get our nose pressed up against the glass if they needed us.

BOWMAN: The Enterprise was needed. Its warplanes flew some of the first attacks against the Taliban. And two years later, its pilots and crew would take part in another fight, against Saddam Hussein. Now, the Enterprise has come home to Norfolk for the last time. The ship will be scrapped, but the most famous name in the Navy will live on. A new ship called the USS Enterprise is planned.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE")

KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway to the danger zone. Going to take your right into the danger zone. Highway to the danger zone. Right into the danger zone. Highway to the danger zone. Gonna take you right into the danger zone...

SIMON: We're your wingman. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.