Nearly 50 Years of Navy History Is on Its Way to Become Scrap

Navy tug boats support the ex-USS Kitty Hawk’s towing in its final transit.
Navy tug boats support the ex-USS Kitty Hawk’s towing in its final transit from Naval Base Kitsap – Bremerton, Washington, Jan. 15, 2022, to a shipbreaking facility in Brownsville, Texas. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Heather C. Wamsley)

The storied aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk -- a ship that served from Vietnam through the second Iraq war -- is heading for the scrapyard. The ship, which began its final sea voyage in January, will arrive at a Texas shipbreaking facility in May.

Throughout the carrier's 48 years of service, it not only saw countless battles and missions but also a collision with a Soviet submarine and a race riot. But the ship was also a relic of a bygone era: Fueled by oil instead of nuclear power, the carrier was the last of its kind in the Navy's arsenal.

Toward the end of the ship's life, the Kitty Hawk Veterans Association tried to get the carrier turned into a museum. Despite the fact that the Navy noted the Kitty Hawk was "eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Place" in its evaluation in 2010, the veterans association said it was told the ship was not available for a "donation hold," the first step a decommissioned ship takes in becoming a museum.

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The 1,047-foot-long ship was launched in 1960; it was named after the area in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the Wright brothers made their historic flights in 1903.

When the ship deployed to Vietnam, just a few years after its launch, it quickly distinguished itself, earning a Presidential Unit Citation -- a unit award that is considered equivalent to a sailor earning the Navy Cross -- for its actions between December 1967 and June 1968 during the fierce fighting around the Tet Offensive.

A Navy history of the ship noted that Adm. John Hyland, in presenting the award, said that "the ship is recognized in professional circles as having been on Yankee Station during the toughest part of the war and against the most heavily defended area in the world."

The ship launched 185 major strikes, 150 of them against North Vietnam, hitting the Hanoi and Haiphong areas 65 times.

However, as the Vietnam War continued, the ship began to experience extended deployments and hardships that, according to the Navy's history, "produced a nearly intolerable strain on the crew." This led to fights between white and Black sailors "fueled by the racial tension endemic throughout the armed forces" over two days in October 1972. Newspaper reports at the time say the crew was made up of 300 Black sailors out of 4,500.

According to the official Navy history, on the evening of Oct. 11, "beginning in the mess decks ... a series of incidents led to fighting between blacks and whites that spread across a number of areas of the ship, including sick bay and the flight deck." Marine patrols dispatched to deal with the violence were interpreted by some Black sailors "as racist and [they] armed themselves with aircraft tie-down chains."

The Navy reported between 47 and 60 men had been injured in the violence.

The service's description of the incident credits Cmdr. Benjamin Cloud, a Black sailor who was Kitty Hawk's second in command, with playing a major role in defusing the situation. When the ship returned to San Diego that November, newspapers at the time reported that 27 sailors, all of them Black, were arrested; 21 requested a court-martial. By April 1973, the last of the trials concluded "with a handful of black sailors still in Navy jails and others discharged, but with little light shed on what caused the racial disturbance aboard the aircraft carrier last October," according to an Associated Press report from the time.

The Kitty Hawk Veterans Association history of the ship makes no mention of the incident.

The Navy noted that the incidents led to "The Understanding Personal Worth And Racial Dignity (UPWARD) program," which was aimed at "establishing a medium for addressing racial concerns on board."

Years later, the Kitty Hawk, now deployed in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, collided with a Soviet submarine when the latter was surfacing. U.S. Navy officials later noted that the sub had been shadowing the carrier for days.

The Navy's top military official at the time, Adm. James Watkins, said the submarine's commander "showed uncharacteristically poor seamanship in not staying clear of Kitty Hawk."

The incident also resulted in a small piece of the submarine's propeller becoming embedded in the Kitty Hawk's hull. It was later recovered and made into a souvenir that is now part of the Naval Historical Center collection. The U.S. Naval Institute said the crash also "provided the U.S. with intelligence about the anechoic coating on Soviet subs" after chunks of the sound-dampening tile were recovered from the carrier's hull.

The institute said that the ship's crew also added a red submarine "victory mark" to the carrier's island.

Now, with 25 deployments firmly behind it, the Kitty Hawk is destined for the recycling yard. In a January Facebook post about the ship, the company contracted to turn the carrier into scrap said it plans to have challenge coins minted from the remaining brass on the Kitty Hawk, as well as save some small sections of the ship for veterans.

The company did make one correction to the ship's story. "International Shipbreaking Limited, LLC (ISL) did not purchase the USS Kitty Hawk and USS John F Kennedy as has been inaccurately reported," the company wrote.

A common line is that the ship was sold for 1 cent.

The post explained that while the company is recycling the ship "at the lowest cost possible to the US taxpayer" -- 1 cent -- "the US Navy still owns both vessels and we will never have title."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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