Happy Birthday 'Big E'

By Admiral J. L. Holloway III, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Enterprise and Air Wing (CVW) 9 completed every mission on that daily flight schedule. CVW-9 flew 125 strike sorties on that date, unloading 167 tons of bombs and rockets on the enemy. From that day forward, the Enterprise embarked on an operational career that not only set performance records among the carriers conducting combat operations in the Vietnam War, she also established the persuasive justification for the incorporation of nuclear power in all future U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. In spite of being a relatively new ship, fighting in a high-tempo war for the first time, the Enterprise won the Battle Efficiency “E” award for being the best carrier in the Pacific Fleet for 1965.

The Genesis

It all began in the 1950s, when Captain Hyman G. Rickover and his Naval Reactors group in the Navy Department produced a pressurized water reactor that was sufficiently powerful and safe enough to install in a U.S. submarine. That became the propulsion plant for the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel and true submersible. In 1954, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson advised the Atomic Energy Commission that “It is now timely and highly desirable from the military standpoint to undertake active development of a practical working prototype of a reactor . . . for the propulsion of large ships.”

With the success of the Nautilus , Admiral Arleigh Burke, the visionary and practical Chief of Naval Operations who led the U.S. Navy for six critical years during the Cold War, had seen the potential for nuclear power in surface ships, especially aircraft carriers. As a result, the Navy’s Fiscal Year 1958 budget included a request for the procurement of nuclear reactors for an aircraft carrier. The proposal squeaked through the House Appropriations Committee on an eight-to-eight vote.

The carrier was ordered from Newport News Shipbuilding Company in November 1957. With a full-load displacement of 89,000 tons, the 1,123-foot-long Enterprise would be the largest ship yet built. She was based on the improved Forrestal -class aircraft carriers in design, but was about 9,000 tons larger to accommodate the additional space needed for eight reactors and radiation shielding.

From a propulsion-plant standpoint, the Enterprise was a straightforward nuclear conversion of the Forrestal conventional engineering design. Eight reactors replaced the eight oil-fired boilers to provide steam to four main engines and four screws. Each reactor could develop about 35,000-shaft horsepower, providing the ship with a total propulsion power of about 280,000-shaft horsepower.

First Refueling

In 1964, after completing Operation Sea Orbit, an around-the-world “show-the-flag” cruise with the nuclear-powered cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9) and the nuclear frigate Bainbridge (DLGN-25)—the first all-nuclear battle formation in history—the Enterprise spent a year in the shipyard refueling. The first reactor cores were short-lived. Those installed in more recently constructed carriers have much longer lives and require refueling only once in the life of the ship.

The Enterprise was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and halfway through her post-refueling shakedown period when the situation in South Vietnam began to unravel. On receiving orders to Southeast Asia, that training was quickly terminated with a successful operational-readiness inspection, and in all haste the carrier was dispatched to the Tonkin Gulf to reinforce the Seventh Fleet. En route, her air wing was flown aboard, consisting of two squadrons of F-4B Phantom fighters and four squadrons of A-4C Skyhawk attack planes—nearly 80 strike aircraft—along with squadrons of reconnaissance aircraft, electronic-warfare planes, tankers, and rescue helicopters. All of it was tailor-made for the war in Vietnam.

To the notable credit of Rickover’s design engineers, everything worked properly on board the Enterprise from the day the first reactor was scheduled to go critical. In her early operations in Vietnam, the ship demonstrated the unique military capabilities of a nuclear-powered carrier. The Enterprise raced halfway around the world from her homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, passing south of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, maintaining an average speed of more than 25 knots and conducting air operations en route without going into port or replenishing at sea until reaching the Pacific.

After one day’s stop at Subic Bay in the Philippines to replace some non-flyable aircraft, the Enterprise went into combat on 2 December 1965, with no further warm-up or preparation. By her third day of operations, the air wing flew 175 combat sorties, the highest daily number achieved to that point in the war in Vietnam.


The Navy was enthusiastic over the performance of the Enterprise , citing the advantages of a nuclear carrier as the capability to proceed at high speed to any place on the high seas without pausing to replenish or refuel. She could also conduct defensive air operations en route to her objective area and launch her initial offensive strikes during the approach to the target, more than 600 miles out. Then she could continue around-the-clock air operations while closing the target area. And she would have enough fuel and ammunition in her capacious magazines and aviation fuel tanks to remain on station for two weeks without refueling or rearming, until the situation was resolved or underway replenishment groups arrived to deliver jet fuel and fill the magazines to rearm the ship’s strike aircraft.

The large amount of uranium fuel packed into the ships’ reactor cores provides the unrefueled CVN’s range. Space in the hull that would normally be reserved for the ship’s fuel oil makes it possible to carry larger stocks of aviation fuel and ammunition. Nuclear power epitomizes the logistical independence of the carrier.

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are proving to have very long lives. Since 1961, the Enterprise has been actively operating in the Fleet, having recently been deployed to the Indian Ocean for combat in support of the war in Afghanistan. Her weapon systems have remained modern over her 50-year life span, because her military capabilities reside in her embarked aircraft. In a sense, an aircraft carrier’s performance can be modernized in as little time as it takes to fly one aircraft off and a newer model aboard.

‘A Real Hero’s Welcome’

The Enterprise returned from the first deployment in Vietnam to San Francisco in late June of 1966 to a real hero’s welcome. At that time, the ship had an impressive cachet. She was the largest ship in the world, the first and only nuclear carrier, and her eight reactors increased her top speed. Then, too, at that time the majority of the American people supported the war. The Bay area had declared the day of return “ Enterprise Day,” and any sailor with an Enterprise shoulder patch could get a free drink in most of the bars in San Francisco.

There was a feeling of outright patriotism in the atmosphere. All three of the Bay area’s main newspapers devoted their full front pages on 21 June 1966 to the Enterprise ’s return from Vietnam to her new homeport, Naval Air Station Alameda. The country was looking for a tangible hero to fuss over, and for the time being the Enterprise was IT.

The San Francisco Chronicle , with a full front-page picture of the Enterprise and one-inch headlines, went on to say, “ Enterprise homecoming snarls Marin County traffic” . . . “2,000 persons line the sidewalks of the Golden Gate Bridge to watch the homecoming of the Enterprise” . . . “traffic on Highway 101 was backed up from the Bridge to San Rafael” . . . “crowds gathered wherever they could get a view of the Bay” . . . “all of the bridge’s parking lots were jammed and the overflow spilled into the Presidio and they too were quickly filled” . . . “despite the traffic there were amazingly no reports of accidents. They were moving too slow for anything to happen.”

The Oakland Tribune summed it up: “The Enterprise , the largest warship in the world, had done her job. It is only fitting that her welcome should be the biggest in the Bay area since that accorded the battered cruiser San Francisco during World War II.” The homecoming was later covered in Life magazine, which had a picture of the Enterprise on its cover. The article also compared the attitude of the crowds as reminiscent of World War II, welcoming a heroic ship of the U.S. Navy home from the war.

Tallying the Second Combat Tour

In June 1967 the ship completed her second combat tour in Vietnam and again headed for Alameda. The Enterprise had been 230 days out of homeport and served five uninterrupted 30-day stints at Yankee Station, flying a total of more than 14,000 sorties from her flight deck—of which 11,470 were combat sorties—and delivering a total of 14,023 tons of ordnance. That amounted to 114 tons of TNT per day against a well-defended enemy.

As in all combat tours, the Enterprise and her air wing paid a price, losing 20 aircraft and 18 air crewmen to hostile fire. The finest recognition of the ship and her embarked air wing was the award of the coveted Navy Unit Commendation for the 1965–67 combat deployments to Vietnam.

Although the Enterprise ’s early Fleet operations included the circumnavigation of the globe and successful combat tours, follow-on nuclear-powered carriers did not immediately appear. The stumbling block was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who cited the increased costs of nuclear power in the carrier and was unable or unwilling to quantify the improved operational advantages that resulted. In his view, the nuclear-powered carrier was not “cost-effective.” Consequently, the next two carriers, the USS America (CV-66) and John F. Kennedy (CV-67), in the FY 1961 and ’63 programs, respectively, were conventionally powered improved versions of the basic Forrestal design.

Selling McNamara

Then, in the fall of 1966, Rickover invited McNamara and members of his staff, accompanied by Secretary of the Navy Nitze and Admiral David L. McDonald, the Chief of Naval Operations, and selected members of his staff, to Bettis Laboratory in Pittsburgh for a briefing on a surface-ship reactor that would be rated at 70,000-shaft horsepower. Secretary McNamara was impressed by the presentation, and on his return to Washington he wrote to Secretary Nitze, asking if two of those reactors could power an aircraft carrier, and if so, would the Navy be interested in such a design.

The initial reaction in the Pentagon was only lukewarm. At that point, Admiral Rickover personally injected himself into the deliberations, and after a quick but intense consultation with his staff affirmed that he could boost the output of his large surface-ship reactor from 70,000- to 90,000-shaft horsepower.

Dr. Harold Brown, director of the Department of Defense Design, Development, Research, and Engineering (DDR&E) Directorate and later Secretary of Defense, observed:

Bob [Secretary McNamara] has been so inflexible on opposing nuclear power for carriers in spite of the technical advances by the industry and the remarkable performance of nuclear ships in combat at sea, that he can’t change his policy without an overriding reason. The two-reactor carrier now gives him that excuse.

The demonstrations in the Bay area of support for our sailors and carriers, our Navy, and our nation, inspired by the spectacle of the world’s largest ship exploiting America’s advanced technology and competence in nuclear power, and then the debates in Congress favoring the naval appropriations for nuclear carriers, were early evidence of the powerful legacy of the Enterprise . That legacy has manifested itself in the construction of 11 large-deck carriers to create today’s all-nuclear carrier force as the main battle line of the U.S. Fleet. The Big E’s compelling motto, “Ready on Arrival,” has deservedly evolved into today’s “We Are Legend!”

Admiral Holloway was the third commanding officer of the Enterprise , from 17 July 1965 to 11 July 1967, and later served as the 20th Chief of Naval Operations, from 29 June 1974 to 1 July 1978. He is the author of Aircraft Carriers at War: A Personal Retrospective of Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet Confrontation (Naval Institute Press, 2007), winner of the Navy League’s 2008 Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement.

A Plank Owner Remembers

By Daniel Leckie

I’m a USS Enterprise plank owner. She was my first duty station after electronics school, and I fell in love with her as soon as I came aboard. I still care about the Big E.

I was a tall, skinny 20-year-old seaman when I reported to the ship in September 1961. She was still the property of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and moored alongside a company pier while fitting out. The shipyard and the Navy had much to do, but the work moved along briskly during the mostly warm and sunny days before commissioning on 25 November.

The construction noise was almost constant through the day and sometimes far into the night. Passageways and compartments were filled with water hoses, air hoses, and extension cords. Down in the galley the smell of sweat, metal, and welding smoke mixed with the aroma of the food.

Comforts of Home

I was lucky. By the time I reported aboard, the living spaces were ready to house sailors, so I didn’t have to deal with the barracks ship. I had a large, comfortable bunk with a four-inch foam mattress, two large lockers beside me, an air-conditioning vent, bunk light, and access to a rack under the three stacked beds for shoes and other belongings. Since the mattresses were supported by metal pans rigidly attached to a frame, they were quite comfortable. I was even luckier because my bunk was in the middle. I had none of the problems of those on the top or the bottom rack. Our compartment occupied a center portion of the 03 level, near the bow of the ship. There was plenty of space for tables and chairs for socializing and card-playing. If you wanted to study, you stayed in your rack.

As a junior sailor, I did mostly grunt work and clean-up. I sometimes got a little free time to watch the tuning of the catapults. The ship faced the James River, and the Navy cordoned off a portion to accommodate the catapult-testing deadweight vehicles. They were rectangular, with multiple wheels and compartments, and were loaded to specific weights and shot into the river to determine the proper steam pressure for a variety of aircraft weights. That was done several times for each of the four catapults, and it went on for weeks.

Because the Enterprise is such a large ship, it took a while to learn my way around. Of course, every space had an address, just like any small town—a deck, a frame, left or right of center. In theory, if a sailor wanted to go to a machine shop at 3-183R he should have no trouble. But in fact, some spaces were so out-of-the-way you might have to go down a ladder at frame 150R and move aft to 179R, then left, and up then down other ladders to get there. That occasionally slowed some work. But it also provided hilarity for sailors and shipyard workers who knew the way as they gave false directions to the lost.

Trials and Tribulations

In October, we took the Enterprise out into the Atlantic for acceptance trials. I don’t know all the things the captain did to test the ship, but I do know he did rooster tails and figure eights. I know this because I was on mess-cook duty and was down in the galley deep-sink area, washing large pots and pans and large utensils. As the ship raced through her maneuvers at high speed, I was tossed from bulkhead to bulkhead, along with the just-washed pots and pans and dozens of utensils. Everyone but me was delighted with the Big E’s performance.

On commissioning day there were multiple cakes and speeches, all of which I missed because I had work to do elsewhere in the ship. After commissioning, the pace seemed to pick up. We shared Guantanamo Bay with the USS Constellation (CVA-64) when we first arrived to begin our shakedown cruise. This was an intense period of drills—general quarters, fire control, damage control, and man overboard, among others. I ran everywhere I had to go and learned that you could go through a frame hatch coaming with little loss of speed if you raised your foot and lowered your head as you flew through. Of course, if you timed it wrong, you got a nasty gash on your forehead and possibly your back.

Best Carrier in the Navy

We passed the tests with the highest score in the carrier Navy at the time.

On 4 July 1962 we entered Boston Harbor early in the morning in bright sunshine, manning the rails. However, the 40-degree wind blowing up our white trouser legs froze our Navy spirits.

After a brief Mediterranean cruise, we were suddenly dispatched to the Caribbean for the Cuban Quarantine affair. I suppose most of the officers knew what was going on, but in my memory, most of the enlisted sailors heard only wild rumors and received no official information until it was over. Most of us relaxed and played cards or sunbathed when our work was done each day. There wasn’t a lot to do, since the only flights were photo F-8 Crusaders. But we still all knew we were on board the first nuclear-powered and best aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy.

Mr. Leckie enlisted in the Navy in 1960 and after Electronics A school served 18 months in the Enterprise . He left the Navy in 1967 but joined the Naval Reserve ten years later and served until 1995. He retired after 25 years in the Atlanta public school system and currently lives in Jonesboro, Georgia.


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