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U.S. Navy - Bye Bye, ‘Big E’

By Norman Polmar

The “Big E” was, at $451 million, the most expensive warship built to that time and, at 86,000 tons full-load displacement, the largest warship ever constructed. Subsequently she was overtaken in both measures by aircraft carriers of the Nimitz (CVN-68) class.

Soon after completion, in the fall of 1962, the “Big E” was one of three U.S. attack carriers that participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, accompanied by the Long Beach and the large destroyer-type ship Bainbridge (DLGN-25), the Enterprise sailed around the world in Operation Sea Orbit, demonstrating the efficacy of nuclear propulsion. The ships took on no supplies or provisions—except for kangaroo food for a ship’s pet acquired in Australia. The “Big E” made port calls at Karachi, Sydney, and Rio De Janerio; the Long Beach and Bainbridge visited additional ports as well. At other ports local VIPs were flown out to the “Big E” by C-1A Trader cargo aircraft for underway visits. The Sea Orbit circumnavigation lasted 65 days, and the ships transited more than 30,000 nautical miles.

During her lengthy career the Enterprise participated in several crises as well as carrying out six combat cruises in the Vietnam War (1965–1973). She made a total of 25 deployments, the last being to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf areas that ended at Norfolk on 4 November 2012.

The giant carrier is being stripped at Newport News—where she was born—and will then be towed to Bremerton, Washington. There she will be cut open and major portions of her eight-reactor nuclear plant will be dismantled; those components still “hot” will be encased and shipped to a burial site. The rest of the ship will be scrapped. The total cost of her dismemberment will probably be in excess of $3 billion!

With the demise of CVN-65 the name Enterprise is to be carried by the planned CVN-80 . . . or will it? Following the nuclear Enterprise , two conventional, oil-fired carriers were built, the America (CV-66) and John F. Kennedy (CV-67), the latter honoring the martyred president. With the resumption of CVN construction, the Navy named CVN-68 for one of the four fleet admirals of World War II—Chester W. Nimitz. The other five-star flags had been honored with large, destroyer-type ships (DLG).

President Richard M. Nixon then directed that CVN-69 be named for another top World War II commander and his former boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thus, the Navy had opened the flood gates for naming carriers for “people,” with the CVN-70 through CVN-79 being named for presidents and politicians. Some had made major contributions to the development of the Navy and national defense, as Carl Vinson (honored by CVN-70); some did not, while others had—at best—very tenuous relationships with the Navy and national defense, such as Gerald R. Ford (honored by CVN-79).

Now the not-yet-started CVN-80 has been given the name Enterprise by Secretary Mabus. But his gesture of assigning “proper” vice political names to Navy ships could be just that, a gesture and not reality. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, tried to bring some sense and responsibility to naming Navy ships; he named the CVN-75 the United States … a ship name going back to the six original frigates of the Navy ( Constitution , Constellation , President , etc.). After he stepped down in April 1987, CVN-75 was renamed for the 33rd president, Harry S. Truman. Mabus will not serve much longer as Secretary of the Navy. When he leaves office, the next SecNav or his successors will likely rename CVN-80 for a fellow politician or a president. At least that’s what the Las Vegas touts are saying.

1. See Norman Polmar, “Report on Ship Naming Falls Short,” Seapower , October 2012, 6–7.

Mr. Polmar, a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History magazines, has served as an adviser or consultant to three Secretaries of the Navy and to two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to members of Congress. He is the author of several books, including the Naval Institute’s Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet .


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