The ‘Big E’ comes home for the last time

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© November 4, 2012

ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE

This massive ship was covered in red lead paint and sitting on a dry dock in Newport News the first time Ray Godfrey laid eyes on it.

The sailor was a 21-year-old high school drop out.

Now 73, Godfrey teared up Sunday while standing on the bridge of the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as he watched a young helmsman steer the Enterprise toward its final homecoming.

From the tower, Godfrey looked down on thousands of cheering family members who had arrived hours earlier at Pier 12 at Norfolk Naval Station to welcome the ship and its crew home after an eight-month deployment – the ship’s 25th and final.

Fifty years ago, Godfrey took part in a similar scene when the ship sailed home to Norfolk after its maiden deployment – participating in the naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Godfrey was one of two “plank owners” – Navy parlance for an original member of a ship’s crew – who joined the historic ship this week on the final leg of its final voyage.

The Enterprise will be inactivated during a ceremony on Dec. 1 before being tugged to Newport News, where it will be gutted at the shipyard that built it a half-century ago.

“This is an honor that I can’t begin to describe,” said Godfrey, who was invited aboard by the captain. “This ship means so much to me. This is where I learned what it means to be a man.”

On the pier, members of the last crew the ship will ever know weren’t thinking about the historic significance. Like every ship homecoming, they were focused on running into the arms of spouses and kissing sons and daughters they’d be meeting for the first time.

The time for reflection will come later, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Mustafa Joseph, before leaving the ship to greet his mother.

“It is a big deal,” he said. “This ship is historic; it’s where I started my Navy career. Right now, I’m just excited to see my family again.”

After weeks of marking sentimental moments aboard the ship – the final stop at a foreign port; the final nighttime landing; the final catapult off the flight deck – the marking of “lasts” seemed to wear on some crew members.

When asked for a recommendation on whether to eat the pizza served in the ship’s wardroom the night before docking in Norfolk, a SH-60 Seahawk helicopter pilot smiled wide. “You have to try it,” he said. “It’s historic; the ship’s last pizza!”

Although some poked fun, the level of interest in claiming a keepsake from arguably the Navy’s most famous ship is serious business.

Before the ship deployed in March, sailors dumped boxes full of old lunch trays into a trash container at the pier. A week later, a few entrepreneurial dumpster-divers were calling the trays “collectors items” and selling them for $65 a pop on eBay.

In the ship’s final days, many people drank coffee from plastic Pepsi cups after sailors and family members aboard the ship pilfered mugs stamped with the ship’s name and crest.

On the flight deck Saturday, sailors in green shirts used a circular saw to chop up the arresting cable that caught the last jet to ever touch down on the deck. Dozens lined up to grab footlong sections of the greasy, steel wire.

Capt. Bill Hamilton, the ship’s commanding officer and the pilot who made that final landing, joked that he needed the ship’s security forces to focus on protecting the ship’s historic components, many of them bound for museums.

Hamilton, whose young grandson joined him onboard and occupied his chair on the bridge as the ship steamed into port, said he takes great pride in being the last man to lead the Enterprise. He choked up before taking the stage at his final all-hands meeting in the ship’s hangar bay, where he thanked the crew for working so hard to keep the old ship from falling apart.

“When I say Enterprise, I’m not talking about the chunk of steel,” Hamilton said. “I’m talking about the crew. I’m talking about the sailors and Marines that keep this ship running.”

Back in 1961, Bill Falls worked in the ship’s laundry department, a thankless but vital task then, as it is now. It was by chance that he became one of only two original crew members to ride the ship home.

The 74-year-old Hampton resident was drinking at the Elks Lodge a couple of years back when he noticed a young sailor drop a few quarters into a jukebox and play an old country song by George Jones.

“I couldn’t understand why a guy so young would listen to George Jones, because he’s ancient,” Falls said.

The two got to talking, and after a number of beers, they realized they both had served on the Enterprise.

The young sailor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Wade Bauer, asked the old-timer if he wanted to join him on the ship’s last tiger cruise, which is one that includes some family and friends.

“This is something I never realized would happen,” Falls said, reflecting on his short tour aboard the ship. “At the time, I didn’t think I had anything to do with history.”

In the coming months, sailors will begin pulling equipment and furniture off the carrier as a private contractor begins dismantling it.

The ship’s engines fired for the last time Sunday; jets loaded with bombs and supplies will never again launch off its sprawling flight deck.

“It’s really over,” Bauer said.

As hundreds of sailors and Marines flipped off lights Saturday night and lay down on mattresses bound for recycling facilities, the voice of the ship’s chaplain, Cmdr. John Owen, crackled over the ship’s speakers for a final prayer.

Owen said he wondered exactly what the ship chaplain said in the first evening prayer 51 years earlier. “I don’t know,” he said.

“But I am confident of this: Were he to be with us tonight, as Enterprise prepares to return to port for the last time, completing her service to the Navy and the nation that commissioned her, he would acknowledge that his prayers have indeed been answered.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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