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.

The Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, will end its 51-year service to the Navy today during a ceremony at Norfolk Naval Station.

More than 100,000 sailors and Marines have served aboard the ship over the years. Thousands of them traveled from all over the country this week to send off the old warship.

They posed for photos on the pier and hugged shipmates they hadn’t seen in decades during public tours of the carrier.

Former crew members dropped service patches and fading photographs from past deployments into a time capsule constructed from parts of the Enterprise.

Others, including Lewis and a few men he flew with back in the ’60s, wandered through the carrier’s winding passageways, trying to find their old sleeping quarters.

That proved challenging for many of the old-timers; the numerous overhauls and renovations that kept the ship running long beyond its intended lifespan also altered the routes they thought they remembered.

Amid the hoopla Friday, the Navy took time to mark one of the darkest days in the ship’s history with a brief ceremony on the flight deck.

It was by a cruel twist of fate that a 19-year-old seaman named Jimmy Gonzales found himself on the Enterprise that day – Jan. 14, 1969. An ordnance explosion on the flight deck sparked a series of blasts and an inferno that killed 28 men and injured more than 300 others.

Gonzales, now 62, wiped away tears Friday after a former crew member read aloud the names of those killed that day.

Gonzales was four weeks out of boot camp and steaming toward Vietnam on a supply ship in late 1968 when he had an allergic reaction to medication that left him in a coma. He was airlifted to the Enterprise and placed in the care of the ship’s superior medical team.

Days after regaining consciousness, Gonzales was still recovering in the carrier’s medical department when explosions shook the massive ship.

Gonzales sprang to his feet as crew members rushed into the sick bay carrying mangled and burned bodies. The corpsmen and doctors were overwhelmed, so Gonzales, who had no medical training, jumped in. He applied tourniquets to stop bleeding, held hands and talked to wounded sailors to keep them from going into shock, and placed splints on broken legs.

With tears streaming down his cheeks, Gonzales laughed as he recalled how he blended in with the medical team. One doctor, not realizing he wasn’t a corpsman, asked Gonzales to fetch a specific medication. To this day, he hopes he grabbed the right one.

“I faked it,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to help. I don’t know how I’m going to help. I just hope I don’t kill somebody!’ ”

Gonzales received a Navy Achievement Medal for his actions. Years later, he met one of the sailors whom he had cared for.

“I told him, ‘Why did I die, come back to life, just to witness all that death?’ ” Gonzales said. “You know what he said? He said, ‘I think God sent you to save me.’ ”

Gonzales paused and shook his head, holding back tears.

“I had to be here to see this ship off,” he said.

Next summer, the Enterprise will be towed to the Newport News shipyard that built it a half century ago, where it will be dismantled.

Eventually, the ship’s stripped down hull will be towed by tugboats around the tip of South America. Its last stop: the cold Pacific waters off Washington, where it will be sunk.

Many memories will live on.

After a bit of searching Friday, Lewis and his former shipmates finally found what they think was their old sleeping quarters. At some point it had been converted to a storage closet.

The spot was where Lewis spent many hours wondering why he had survived more than 200 combat flights while others – such as Jack Prudhomme – perished or suffered for years as prisoners of war.

Lewis went on to fly for more than 30 years with a commercial airline. He remarried, raised children and coached youth baseball in rural Georgia, where he lives.

“My time out on this ship changed me forever,” he said. “I went out and lived my life knowing I owed it to Jack to do something with it. So that’s what I tried to do.”

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

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