For the Big E, it was the beginning of the end. On March 11, 2012, USS Enterprise (CVN-65)—the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier and the oldest active combat ship in the U.S. Navy—left Norfolk on her final deployment. She was embarking upon the end of a 51-year career, a seagoing record unmatched by any warship in American history and seldom approached elsewhere.

The Big E’s skipper is Captain William C. “Boomer” Hamilton Jr., a tall, well-spoken Alabaman who acquired his call sign after a “sonic event” when he flew F/A-18 Hornets. Hamilton assumed command in August 2011, shortly after the ship returned from an Arabian Sea deployment. That cruise was to have been the Big E’s swan song prior to decommissioning.

But it wasn’t. National defense requirements intervened, and Boomer Hamilton and company found themselves performing an encore in “the no-kidding last cruise.”

Hamilton is the carrier’s twenty-third captain. He speaks in a rich baritone that could get him a second career in broadcasting. A Top Gun graduate, landing signal officer, and test pilot, he deployed in four other carriers during his 30-year career.

Enterprise’s executive officer is Captain Gregory C. Huffman, also a fighter pilot and test pilot. His nonflying duties included a stretch as a White House military aide from 2002 to 2005. As “exec” he spends much of his time dealing with personnel matters: the ship’s company of 3,100 plus 1,300 in the air wing and another 200 for the embarked task group staff.

Commanding the seven squadrons of Carrier Air Wing One is Captain Robert “Clete” Boyer, an F/A-18 pilot as “CAG.” (The World War II acronym for air group commander is still used, though the terminology has changed.) Air Wing One is composed of four strike-fighter squadrons plus early warning, electronic warfare, and helicopter units—in all, some 60 aircraft.

Official news releases stated that Enterprise’s last deployment was her twenty-second. A knowledgeable count, however, showed 24 cruises through 2011, excluding her two-month 1962 shakedown and at least three training periods of similar duration. It’s not unusual for amateur historians to have more accurate information than the naval bureaucracy.

On this twenty-fifth deployment, Big E aviators flew over the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the North Arabian Sea. On one notable occasion in early May, Strike Fighter Squadron 211 held an airborne change of command overhead the carrier when Commander John Bixby relieved Commander James McCall. Said Bixby, “I’m an aviator, so anything we can do in a jet is better than something we can do on the ground.”

Enterprise, like most carriers, gained weight over the years. Originally pegged at 89,000 tons maximum, she now displaces nearly 95,000. In that time, she has flown a remarkable variety of aircraft, from piston-driven Skyraiders and Tracers of 1950s vintage to the current generation of tactical jets: 20 types including helicopters. In contrast, her nearest competitor, USS Nimitz (CVN-68), has operated 14 types.

The Big E is a longtime warrior, having logged five Vietnam deployments between 1966 and 1973. Like her predecessor—the conventionally powered carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), which recovered from multiple bomb strikes and kamikaze damage in World War II—“the 65 boat” has heart. On January 14, 1969, off Vietnam, a hot engine exhaust ignited a rocket pod on a parked fighter on Enterprise’s flight deck. Twenty-seven men were killed and 314 injured, with the loss of 15 aircraft. But Enterprise returned to sea in late April—a remarkable 51-day turnaround.

Vietnam produced the best-known veteran of the current Enterprise: former attack pilot Stephen Coonts, who became a hugely successful novelist. Today he notes, “I flew from her deck on her last two Vietnam cruises, 1971 to 1973. I made over 200 cat shots from her deck and over 200 arrested landings. Like many young men and women, I did a lot of growing up aboard Enterprise.” (For readers unfamiliar with carriers, “cat” is short for catapult. A carrier deck is shorter than a normal runway, so planes taking off must be hurled into the air by hydraulic catapults, and planes landing must be “arrested” when their “tailhook” catches one of four cables stretched across the flight deck.)

Whereas the original Big E fought only Imperial Japan, Boomer Hamilton’s ship has fought multiple enemies. In addition to Vietnam, she has launched combat missions in Middle East waters since 1988. During Operation Praying Mantis, Enterprise aircraft contributed to sinking two Iranian vessels in retaliation for attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf. In the ’90s she participated in Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq. Subsequently her air wing responded to 9/11 with strikes into Afghanistan and launched aircraft in the second Iraq war beginning in 2003.

For officers, Enterprise has long been a stepping stone to flag rank. At least 17 of the first 20 captains were promoted to admiral, with the first 4 making three- and four-star rank. The third skipper, James L. Holloway III, became chief of naval operations under Richard Nixon.

In 1983 Captain Robert J. “Barney” Kelly ran the ship aground in San Francisco harbor but surprised some naval pundits by growing four stripes into four stars. Insiders said that an Annapolis ring and nuclear power school made the difference, as captains of fuel-oil powered ships who made similar errors were fired.

A scandal emerged in 2011 when Captain Owen Honors was censured for a video produced on his watch as executive officer four years before. The content was condemned as gay bashing, and Honors—then intended to be the ship’s last skipper—was relieved of command. Though reprimanded with others involved with the film, Captain Honors remained on active duty.

Enterprise is not only the oldest carrier afloat—she’s also one of a kind. Originally she was to have had five sisters, but the cost was prohibitive, and the next nuclear carrier, lead ship of the Nimitz class, did not arrive until 1975. Consequently, after her half-century in service, spare parts are not available from the naval yellow pages. Hamilton explains, “We have a tremendous machine shop, and our guys can manufacture almost anything we need. If something breaks, they can make it. It’s expensive, but it keeps us going.”

Enterprise has outlived her next two successors: America (CV-66, from 1965 to 1996) and the original John F. Kennedy (CV-67, from 1968 to 2007). Both were oil-fired ships, the last non-nuclear-powered carriers in the fleet.

The cost of building and operating a nuclear carrier is enormous. Enterprise’s original price tag was $451.3 million. Eisenhower (CV-69, commissioned in 1977) was reckoned at $4.5 billion in 2007 dollars; George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), the last Nimitz-class ship, is pegged at $6.2 billion, but the new Gerald Ford (CVN-78) is listed at $13.5 billion—a figure that may grow before commissioning in 2015, with the follow-on “JFK II” somewhat less.

Taxpayers are entitled to ask what they get for their money. A nuclear carrier can run two-and-a-half times the acquisition and operating cost of an oil-fired carrier over a similar career. Today’s new flattops probably cost around $12 billion to build and operate over their expected service life. Carrier captains and aviators note several operating advantages, including plenty of fresh water, ample steam for catapults and other systems, and less corrosion from the putrid effects of stack gas. In addition, since they don’t carry fuel oil, there’s extra space inside the hull—any ship’s inevitable concern—for ordnance, berthing, and other uses.

The downside to a nuke also is multifaceted. Refueling a nuclear carrier is a lengthy process, requiring careful handling of hazardous materials, and is usually done once in the vessel’s life. Engineers actually cut through the flight deck, hangar deck, and other spaces to gain access to the reactors. Because of the time involved, major maintenance and upgrades are undertaken at the same time, extending the process and making each ship unavailable for years. Enterprise’s last refueling, in conjunction with a major overhaul, took four years, 1990 to 1994. Nimitz’s refueling took three years, from 1998 to 2001.

Before embarking on her last cruise, Enterprise was inspected by Admiral John C. Harvey of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He lauded the Big E and her escorts, saying, “I haven’t sent a strike group underway that is as ready as you are. No one has done as much to get ready, worked as hard, and accomplished as much in every warfare area. You should be very proud of what you’re going to be doing once you get to where you’re going .  .  . where the business of the nation needs you.”

Harvey brought to his statement the perspective of a history buff. He well knows the critical role that carriers have played in the nation’s business for more than 70 years.

Naval commentators have long insisted that in time of crisis, presidents ask, “Where are the carriers?” Aircraft carriers have been America’s geostrategic trump card for seven decades. But in the original crisis, Washington mavens wanted to know, “Where are their carriers?”

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy not only launched the attack that precipitated American entry into World War II, it also propelled the flattop to world-historical importance. Six Japanese aircraft carriers and their escorts secretly crossed the Pacific and, operating as an integrated unit, struck Hawaii. At the time, neither the American nor the British Navy, each with global commitments, could have concentrated so many flattops on a single mission. Naval historian John B. Lundstrom has aptly described Japan’s Pearl Harbor striking force as “a 1941 atomic bomb.”

With its battleships destroyed or benched, and with marginal submarine torpedoes, Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet had one option for taking the war to Japan. Nimitz began with three carriers, reinforced over the next several months with others from the Atlantic. His champion flattop was the USS Enterprise (CV-6), commissioned in 1938, the seventh American naval vessel to bear the name and immediate predecessor of the one now retiring. She became the single most essential platform of the Pacific War.

This Big E escorted her sister, Hornet (CV-8), in launching the Doolittle Raid against Japan in April 1942, then played an essential role in the strategic victory at Midway in June. That battle cost her older sister Yorktown (CV-5), but Japan never recovered from the loss of four of its own carriers. Consequently, two months later America launched its first offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. There Enterprise fought two more carrier duels, keeping Japanese forces in the area to a manageable level. At the height of the campaign in mid-November, the Big E was America’s only remaining fleet carrier in the Pacific. Saratoga (CV-3) was sidelined with battle damage, while the other four Pacific Fleet carriers had been sunk between May and October.

In the Atlantic, where Winston Churchill confided that the German submarine threat to Britain’s lifelines was his greatest concern of World War II, carriers performed an essential function in suppressing the U-boats. The Royal Navy, which had invented the aircraft carrier in the Great War, now converted merchant ships into small flattops to provide air cover for convoys at sea beyond range of land-based planes. The United States followed, and by the spring of 1943 Allied escort carriers (CVEs) had closed the dreadful Mid-Atlantic Gap, where wolf packs had voraciously fed on fat merchantmen. Thirteen months before D-Day, the U-boat master, Admiral Karl Dönitz, admitted the obvious: Carrier aircraft working with destroyers had made life short or tenuous for German submarines.

At war’s end the U.S. Navy possessed 99 carriers of all types, mostly CVEs. Enterprise had just completed extensive repairs of kamikaze damage sustained three months before, but soon was retired as the Navy acquired bigger, newer ships. She had earned a record 20 battle stars, becoming the most decorated man-o-war in American history. But she was sold for scrap by an uncaring naval bureaucracy, and by 1960 she was gone. Much of her steel went to Japan.

Little appreciated today is the critical contribution of tailhook aviation to saving Korea in the summer of 1950. When the Communist steamroller left Pyongyang Station for Seoul and points south in late June, USS Valley Forge (CV-45) and a British carrier responded. In contrast, nearly every allied airfield on the peninsula was overrun or rendered untenable, forcing Air Force squadrons back to Japan in August. They had to overfly the Yellow Sea en route to operating areas around the shrinking Pusan Pocket.

Three U.S. flattops provided on-call tactical airpower that was essential in offsetting the North Koreans’ large manpower advantage. Then in September, carrier aviators supported the Inchon landings, which reversed the course of the war. In all, 11 fleet carriers and 6 light or escort carriers logged 38 deployments during the “police action.” Carriers were so heavily engaged in Korea that flattop aircrew and sailors accounted for one-third of U.S. Navy deaths.

All the while, progress was leaping ahead by orders of magnitude. In 1961 the current “Enterprise VIII” hoisted her commissioning pennant to become the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier. Her captain was Vincent de Poix, who had flown from CV-6 in 1942. He had five of his old ship’s portholes installed in his new command.

Barely 10 years after the Korean armistice in 1953, carrier aviation launched into a decade long effort in Southeast Asia. Eventually 17 attack carriers made more than 70 deployments from 1964 through 1972, and 4 antisubmarine carriers participated as well. At the end of those nine years, ships and men were worn out. Oriskany (CV-34) averaged nearly one combat cruise a year, and Hancock (CV-19), Ranger (CV-61), and Kitty Hawk (CV-63) were close behind. From the initial reconnaissance missions over Laos to the first strikes against North Vietnam to the mining of Haiphong Harbor, carriers were instrumental in executing American strategy, however erratic and flawed it may have been. More than 450 carrier fliers and crew perished among 2,562 Navy deaths: nearly one in five.

Foremost among the advantages of carriers is “territorial independence.” As admirals are fond of noting, a carrier’s flight deck represents four and a half acres of sovereign American soil. Perhaps the best example was Operation El Dorado Canyon, the retaliatory strike against Libya for a terrorist bombing in Berlin in 1986. Air Force briefers displayed a map showing the route flown by F-111 fighter-bombers from Britain, around the periphery of Western Europe, to avoid overflying wavering allies. Meanwhile, the air wings of Coral Sea (CV-43), Saratoga (CV-60), and America (CV-66), operating in the Mediterranean, contributed more than half the total sorties, with salubrious results on Muammar Qaddafi’s behavior.

Despite the expense and time required for refueling nuclear carriers, the Navy is usually able to meet deployment commitments. “Surge” operations have brought the concentration of unusually large numbers of flattops. The best example was Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91, when six carriers were concentrated against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, providing timely airpower. Air Force partisans griped that early CNN reports from USS Independence (CV-62) in Operation Desert Shield represented “Carrier News Network.” The flattops directly engaged were Midway (CV-41), Ranger (CV-61), America (CV-67), Eisenhower (CVN-69), and Theodore Roosevelt (CV-71) in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The carriers represented a force multiplier when there was no more ramp space to be had on the Arabian Peninsula.

In recent decades the Navy has maintained 11 big-deck carriers, excluding ships operating Harrier jump jets and helicopters. Since one nuclear carrier is always refueling, 10 are available for deployments. Enterprise’s replacement, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), is expected to commission in 2015, leaving a shortfall during the interim.

Partisans on both sides of the aisle argue either that America no longer needs 10 deployable flight decks—or that it needs more. The latter is an extremely hard sell, and not only because of cost. There has not been a war at sea in seven decades, and none appears to be on the horizon. Carriers have supported the war against terrorism since 2001, and they also contribute to disaster relief—what sailors call “pizza delivery.” However, the Navy is being redirected more toward Asia and the Western Pacific, where at present the U.S. Navy outweighs the Russian and Chinese fleets combined. When it comes to carriers in particular, the Russians have just one, the conventionally fueled Admiral Kuznetsov; commissioned in 1991, she has spent her career in port or serving in the Northern (Atlantic) Fleet and Black Sea Fleet. China’s lone carrier, Liaoning, is a Russian-built Kuznetsov-class ship currently used for training.

Whatever happens in the Western Pacific or elsewhere, Enterprise will not be there. She returned from her extended final cruise on November 4, 90 days later than expected. Growing tensions with Iran required her presence until another carrier arrived. Said Boomer Hamilton, “We are pleased to be returning to our families after a very successful deployment, but to know that it is the last time Enterprise will be underway through her own power makes our return very sentimental.”

The ship’s inactivation took place December 1 at Norfolk. Because her eight reactors need to be removed for disposal, the actual decommissioning and dismantling process will require years and will happen without an audience.

Nevertheless, the Big E’s reputation is assured. Heir to the fightingest reputation in the U.S. Navy, owner of records that will forever belong to her alone, she exits her service as a unique player on the global stage of the world’s great oceans and the air above them.

Barrett Tillman is the author of 45 books, including, most recently, Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II.

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