Ex-crew members say goodbye to the ‘Big E’

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 1, 2012

NORFOLK

Tears welled up in Bob Lewis’ eyes Friday after he stepped onto the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise for the first time in 45 years.

The old fighter pilot cupped a trembling hand over his mouth before talking through a surge of memories and emotions.

Down there, directly below the jet blast deflectors. Lewis pointed toward the bow. That’s where he and his buddies bunked for two tours in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.

Roaring jet engines sang him to sleep during the few hours each day he wasn’t in his A-4 Skyhawk, dropping ordnance on the Viet Cong or dodging enemy fire.

For months at a time, Lewis and his pals ate nothing but “rollers and sliders” – hot dogs and hamburgers – in the “dirty shirt wardroom,” where pilots were permitted to dine in filthy flight suits.

Lewis, now 73, had a lot of good laughs on this old ship. And he shed many tears.

Like on Dec. 22, 1965, when he watched from the cockpit as his buddy Lt. Jack Prudhomme’s jet crashed into a mountainside near Hai Phong after taking enemy fire.

Lewis lay in his bunk that night and wished it had been him. Prudhomme had a wife and kids back home. Lewis, by then 26 years old and divorced, had no one.

His story is one among thousands being told this week in Norfolk.

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