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.)