Alums sad at USS Kitty Hawk's last goodbye

Alums sad at USS Kitty Hawk's last goodbye
Former USS Kitty Hawk crew member Ray Wade of Yuba City, Calif., looks over the ship while his wife Marsha takes a photo. (Photo by Larry Steagall, Kitsap Sun)
BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Carlos Rivera served on the USS Kitty Hawk's first crew. Aaron Lussier is part of its last.

They and sailors from the 48 years between them gathered in the aircraft carrier's hangar bay Thursday to say goodbye to America's oldest active warship.

Commissioned in April 1961, the Hawk has seen its last battle. It will be replaced this spring by the USS George H.W. Bush.

"It ties a loop around almost half a century," Capt. Todd Zecchin, the ship's 34th and final commanding officer, said of the event.

In addition to the former crew members, family and friends who visited the ship Thursday at Naval Base Kitsap, another 2,000 are anticipated for a formal celebration of its legacy on Saturday.

Rivera, 67, was aboard the Kitty Hawk in 1960 for its shakedown in the Western Atlantic and a trip around Cape Horn to its first homeport of San Diego.

"It's really heartbreaking to say goodbye to this ship," said the San Diegan, who fueled planes when he served aboard the Kitty Hawk. "I'm very proud of being here at this moment."

Rivera was one of several plank owners original crew members who reacquainted themselves with the ship, viewed historic photos and artifacts, and reminisced. Lussier, a young culinary specialist with his first command, took it all in from the sidelines. He, too, was moved by the experience.

"With the history that the ship has and with the times that I've had, it's going to be emotional for me when I leave," said Lussier, of Nashua, N.H., who has been on the ship for three years. "I've had a lot of great times and the people I've met here I'm going to be friends with for the rest of my life."

Many plank owners remember a high-altitude nuclear test on July 9, 1962, at Johnston Island. Earl Martinelli of San Francisco was standing on the flight deck. The explosion 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean turned night into day, "like somebody hit a light switch, from horizon to horizon," he said.

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.

Standing out among the crowd of ship jackets and caps was a squad of soldiers in maroon berets from Fort Lewis the 4th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. They came to let the junior members drink in some of the unit's heritage.

Less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they launched the first ground combat operation in Afghanistan, flying Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters from the Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea. First Sgt. Paul Hutchings, a Blackhawk crew chief, took part in the attack.

"We are part of a mission that took the fight to the enemy after the cowardly attack on 9/11," he said. "By our actions, we let them know that there is no place where they can hide."

The Kitty Hawk will be deactivated but will remain here and kept in a state where it could be reactivated if needed, said Zecchin, the commander.

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The legacy of the 48-year-old aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk will be honored in a ceremony scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Naval Base Kitsap's Pier D. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend the event on the ship's hangar deck. Invitations are required.

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