Ship That Made Navy History Prepares Changing Ports
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ When the aircraft carrier Nimitz leaves the Norfolk Naval Station soon for its new home port in Washington state, the ship will take along a starring role in recent Navy history.
The 1,092-foot-long, 94,000-ton Nimitz had a part in the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980, the downing of two Libyan jets in 1981, a fatal plane crash that spurred the Navy’s drug crackdown and, more recently, the Walker family spy ring.
″Nothing has ever surpassed my tour aboard Nimitz for excitement,″ said Lt. Ken Cronk. ″It was probably the high point of my career.″
The nuclear-powered carrier and its 6,000-man crew leave Norfolk sometime before the end of the year for a six-month, ’round-the-world deployment that ends at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. Its official home port will be a base at Everett, 30 miles north of Bremerton, which is under construction.
The Navy transferred the Nimitz to the Pacific Fleet to make room in Norfolk for its newest aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, commissioned in October.
The Nimitz, named for World War II Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, joined the fleet in May 1975. In a commissioning ceremony at the Norfolk Naval Station, President Gerald R. Ford called the ship ″visible evidence of our commitment to friends and allies and our capability to maintain these commitments.″
One of the ship’s earliest leading roles actually came in a movie.
Camera crews boarded the Nimitz in summer 1979 to shoot ″The Final Countdown.″ The science-fiction film starred Kirk Douglas as the skipper of a modern carrier taken back in a time warp to Pearl Harbor in 1941. Douglas had to decide whether to change history by attacking the Japanese invaders.
Nimitz was at sea in November 1979 when Americans were taken hostage at the embassy in Iran. The ship was diverted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean in January, and eight helicopters from the Nimitz took part in an aborted rescue mission to Iran in April.
In that lengthy nine-month deployment, sailors were served beer aboard a Navy ship for the first time in about 70 years. Each crewman got two cans of beer, brought aboard from a supply ship.
″It was a morale booster,″ said Cronk, who served aboard the carrier from 1978 to 1981. ″It let us know that people knew we were there.″
On May 26, 1980, the carrier returned home to greetings from President Jimmy Carter and 25,000 friends and relatives in what was described as the biggest Navy homecoming since World War II.
Exactly a year later, a Marine jet crashed on the Nimitz’ flight deck during operations off the Florida coast. Fourteen men died and 48 were injured in the accident, later blamed on errors by a pilot whose reactions may have been slowed by a cold medicine. Investigators also found evidence of marijuana smoking in three of those killed.
Although marijuana use did not contribute to the crash, the findings prompted the Navy to step up efforts to eliminate illegal drug use in the service.
Less than three months after the crash, F-14 fighter jets from the Nimitz shot down two Libyan warplanes that fired on them in the Mediterranean.
In 1985, the Nimitz gained national attention when one of its crewmen was discovered smuggling classified documents to the Soviet Union.
Seaman Michael Walker had been passing the documents to his father, John A. Walker Jr. of Norfolk, who is believed to have been the leader of a spy ring that included John Walker’s brother, Arthur, and another man, Jerry Whitworth. The Walkers’ case has been described as one of the most damaging espionage operations in U.S. history.
Machinist Mate Chief Richard C. Book, a longtime Nimitz crewman, said few knew Michael Walker because he was a newcomer to the carrier.
″It was such a surprise to us when he was picked up,″ Book said. ″We’ve done a lot of good things. We shot down the Libyans. We’ve responded to terrorist threats. All those were good things, and then Michael Walker shows up and it’s almost like a black mark.″
Michael Walker recently was sentenced to 25 years in prison, his father and uncle received life terms, and Whitworth received a 365-year sentence.
Book served aboard the ship from 1975 to 1977 and returned to the Nimitz at his request in 1983 after serving aboard another ship and on shore. He said he preferred the large warship to smaller vessels.
″It’s just so big. I’m still impressed daily with it,″ Book said. ″Nothing in the world bigger that floats.″