It was like living aboard a floating city.
There was recreation. Allen Polixa, a crew member on the USS Forrestal from 1980 to 1982, often took "swim breaks" miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, jumping into the water from just below the ship's top deck.
There was order. Fight a colleague or steal from another crew member, said Jimmie Stewart, who served on the Forrestal from 1960 to 1962, and it was down to the brig. No questions asked.
And there was chaos. In July 1967, a devastating fire and a series of chain-reaction explosions took the lives of 134 sailors aboard the Forrestal. Future senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, then a young lieutenant commander who had been preparing to take off from the Forrestal's deck in his Navy A-4 Skyhawk, managed to escape from the thick of the flames.
"I was one of the lucky ones," McCain said in an interview Monday night. "It was a horrible experience. A lot of brave people gave their lives to save lives that day."
Before sunrise Tuesday, in the ice-filled Delaware River near the Navy Yard, that floating city -- a home away from home for Polixa, Stewart, McCain, and thousands of others since the 1950s -- took to the ocean for the last time.
The Forrestal, commissioned in 1955 as the first of the post-World War II supercarriers, began its final voyage Tuesday. The ship is headed to Brownsville, Texas, where this month a metal company will begin the nearly two-year process of turning it into scrap.
The Navy had offered the carrier for use as a museum or memorial, but said no suitable takers came forward.The aircraft carrier's journey to open waters began a bit after 5 a.m. Tuesday and was expected to last around 18 hours. The trip to Texas, led by tugboat, should take 15 to 17 days, said Nikhil Shah, president of Brownsville-based All Star Metals.
Tuesday morning, a smattering of veterans and history buffs lined the Navy Yard's snow-covered docks to get their last look at the Forrestal, an imposing and impressive flattop, before it ends up in the Texas chop shop. The thousand-foot ship, as mammoth and foreboding as it was a half-century ago, bobbed back and forth like a cork in the water as dozens of workers, armed with hard hats, flashlights, and glow sticks, pushed and pulled on the dozens of ropes that had been keeping it tied to the dock.
The nine letters spelling out "Forrestal," once painted boldly on the ship's gray exterior, were badly faded. The ship, decommissioned in 1993 and since relegated to shipyards in Rhode Island and Philadelphia, was pulled along Tuesday by four tugboats that, compared to the aircraft carrier, looked like specks as they inched through the water.
"Today, most people look at it as 60,000 tons of scrap metal, which it isn't," said Stewart, 74, of Northeast Philadelphia. "It's 60,000 tons of history."
Stewart, a white-haired and white-bearded Navy veteran, is an encyclopedia when it comes to the Forrestal's history. He worked in the ship's lighting shop in the early 1960s -- he once wired a room with fancy lights in an attempt to woo women while docked -- and lived through larger-than-life storms and plane crashes during his two years on the crew. He even tells of having once seen a gust of wind blow a shipmate off the deck.
Like Stewart, Polixa, 54, came out early Tuesday to say goodbye to the ship on which he served as an engineer in the early 1980s. Polixa, who drove down with his wife from their home in Nutley, N.J., wore a Navy hat and a patch-covered Navy jacket, and took photos and video as the Forrestal eased its way down the Delaware.
"That ship was home for two years," he said.
And then there's McCain.
Despite his experience at the epicenter of the 1967 fire -- a tragedy the Navy still uses as a case study to teach damage control and ammunition safety -- McCain said he looks back on his time aboard the Forrestal fondly.
"I'd always really cherished the hope that they could make a museum out of it somewhere, as they've done with many carriers," the Arizona senator said. "It'll be a shame to see it go."
|Navy Ships Senator John McCain|