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Kitty Hawk vetearans make one last cruise

Former USS Kitty Hawk sailor William Burge, 68, shows off his ‘plank owner’ hat during Kitty Hawk’s final cruise to Bremerton. Sixty-five former crew members of the carrier went underway with the ship from San Diego. More than half of the veterans taking the cruise to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard were on board when the ship was commissioned April 29, 1961.  - MC3 Matthew Reinhardt
Former USS Kitty Hawk sailor William Burge, 68, shows off his ‘plank owner’ hat during Kitty Hawk’s final cruise to Bremerton. Sixty-five former crew members of the carrier went underway with the ship from San Diego. More than half of the veterans taking the cruise to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard were on board when the ship was commissioned April 29, 1961.
— image credit: MC3 Matthew Reinhardt

USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) set sail from San Diego August 28 with a few extra ‘crewmembers’ aboard. Sixty-five former Kitty Hawk sailors made the 47-year-old carrier’s final transit, to Bremerton for inactivation and eventual decommissioning.

Kitty Hawk, the Navy’s oldest active warship, was commissioned on April 29, 1961.

“This whole experience has been great,” said Bill Meade from Lebanon, Penn., a gunner’s mate technician 3rd class in 1966. “This ship holds some of the fondest memories we have. You tend to forget all the bad things, but the good things are always remembered and cherished.”

The former crewmembers, which included 38 plank owners — as members of the ship’s commissioning crew are called — were able to catch up with their current counterparts. Former interior communications electrician 3rd class Xavier Cuevas from Woodland Hills, Calif., was the “running mate” for former interior communications electrician 3rd class Jim Mackey from Tampa, Fla., who served aboard in 1968.

“It’s been a great privilege to show these guys around the ship and show them how well we’ve taken care of it,” Cuevas said. “It’s the experience of a lifetime to be able to hear the history of what I do here.”

“This is like my alma mater of being in the military,” Mackey said. “I get to come back and relive my youth, see if the food still tastes the same, find my old bunk.”

The veterans said they were a little surprised by some of the similarities between the Navy in the ‘60s and the Navy today.

“When I was on board, there weren’t more than a couple televisions and we had to call a specialist to fix it if it broke,” Mackey said. “Most of what the crew’s doing though is the same as I used to do. One thing I noticed is that sailors today don’t write as many letters as we used to.”

“Not much has changed,” Meade said. “Things are being done the same way I remember and everyone gets along the same, but then again, if you live three feet from someone for three years, you kind of have to get along.”

Former aviation boatswain’s mate 3rd class Ed Thomas from Methuen, Mass., and former aviation boatswain’s mate 2nd class Lance Weeda from Bothell, Wash., were part of Kitty Hawk’s commissioning crew. They made the ship’s first cruise and made the ship’s final at-sea transit.

They said Kitty Hawk represents a piece of their life, the same way they represent a piece of the carrier’s history.

“Being present for the first cruise and the last is something I never thought could possibly happen,” Thomas said. “I saw the ship for the first time in 45 years from the pier in San Diego, and I can’t even describe the feeling I got when I set eyes on it. All I can say is that it was emotional.”

Both Weeda and Thomas were the first to operate systems on board after the commissioning. Weeda worked on catapults and Thomas on aircraft elevators. Both said they were very happy to be able to have their pictures taken with the last operators of the equipment they had worked on 47 years ago.

“You can ask my children or my grandchildren, they all know I served on the Kitty Hawk because it’s all I ever talk about,” Weeda said. “I’m proud of it. This is the only ship I ever served on, and when I die, I want them to say that I was here, that I served on USS Kitty Hawk.”

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