A group of Navy veterans want to preserve the USS Enterprise's history, but it appears they'll be doing it without the ship itself.
The veterans learned in March that making a museum out of the aircraft carrier, the largest in the U.S. fleet and the first to be powered by nuclear reactors, isn't an option. More recently they they learned that a more modest effort to preserve the ship's island, also wouldn't fly.
And for the 10 Nimitz-class carriers in the 11-ship U.S. fleet, a future as a museum seems unlikely.
"Inactivation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers requires removing large sections of ship structure to facilitate reactor compartment removal and disposal," Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the Navy's program executive officer for carriers, said in a statement emailed to the Daily Press.
Converting any one of the carriers, all built in Newport News, Moore wrote, would likely "cost tens of millions of dollars."
The Navy already ruled out making a museum out of the Enterprise.
At 50 years old, the ship is the oldest carrier in the fleet. Its inactivation ceremony -- a retirement party for ships -- is set for Dec. 1. After that the ship will be defueled and stripped down in Newport News, and eventually towed to Puget Sound, Wash., where its eight reactors will be taken out of the ship for disposal.
"We had wanted to think that of all the (nuclear) carriers Enterprise would be the one that would be used as a museum," said Don Thiry, who lives in Woodhaven, Mich., and served on the ship during a refueling in Newport News from 1969 to 1971.
But Thiry, who also chairs the USS Enterprise Association, said veterans of the ship understand that the ship's eight reactors, and the process to get them off the ship, take that option off the table.
"We'd hoped that someplace like Alameda, where we were homeported, or Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth or somewhere in that area would like to have it, but the cost is prohibitive," he said. "And once it's taken apart, nobody wants to pay to put it back together."
Another Enterprise vet put it succinctly in a recent issue of the association's newsletter: "Too big. Too nuclear."
The Enterprise was commissioned in 1961, and given the motto, "The First, The Finest."
It was and remains the longest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet, earning it the nickname the Big E.
Early in the ship's career, it was part of a blockade during the Cuban missile crisis and then joined the first nuclear-powered naval task force. That three vessel group steamed around the world without a single refueling.
The carrier first saw combat in Vietnam in 1965 -- another first for nuclear-powered ships -- and was one of the first ships to respond to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, steaming overnight to establish a presence in the North Arabian Sea.
Knowing that the ship itself would not become a museum, the USS Enterprise Association started coming up with other ideas.
Thiry said the association asked the Navy about preserving the "island" -- the tower that rises above the flight deck. The answer was no.
"They said the cost to save even that is just prohibitive," Thiry said. And the island on the Enterprise is not original -- it was replaced during the ship's mid-life refueling and overhaul.
But some documents and artifacts from the Big E will be saved under policies laid out by the Naval History & Heritage Command. Some of those items can then be donated to musuems that showcase naval and aviation history like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The command's website includes a long list of such items that are kept from decommissioned ships, including the last flown flag on a vessel, certain plaques, the helm, spyglass and ship paintings and photographs.
Thiry said the association is talking with Naval officials and a contact person at Newport News Shipbuilding, a business unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries, as its members continue to think about possible preservation plans.
What about the Nimitz-class?
Joe Brunner, a San Diego-area retiree who was a member the Nimitz's commissioning crew, said he's not surprised to hear that the Navy is reluctant to make a museum out of his old ship and the other carriers in its class.
Ship museums are expensive endeavors, even without the nuclear factor, said Brunner, a member of the USS Nimitz Association.
"These nonprofit organizations that take over these ships to preserve them are just about, to the last one, in financial trouble," Brunner said.
"They're very, very expensive to maintain, and they don't get the support they need to keep them going."
All that becomes trickier for a ship that runs on nuclear energy, he added.
"You have to remove all the reactors, but you also then have to establish a new power system on the ship," he said.
Three aircraft carriers have become museums in the U.S., but none of them was built in the last 60 years.
They are the USS Intrepid in New York City, the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and the USS Midway in San Diego.
As a museum, the Midway has drawn more than 4 million visitors in its first five years.
Fans and veterans of the USS Ranger, one of the first so-called supercarriers, learned last week that the Navy plans to scrap that ship instead of donating it for use as a museum on the banks of the Columbia River near Portland, Ore.