It was once the biggest symbol of American military power in the Indo-Pacific, battle tested from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf and a survivor of a collision with a Soviet submarine.
But the glory days of the former USS Kitty Hawk are over, and the retired supercarrier is on its final, 16,000-mile journey from Washington state to Texas, where it will be cut up and sold for scrap.
International Shipbreaking Limited of Brownsville, Texas, bought the ship last year for less than a dollar from US Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees the disposal of retired warships.
The 1,047-foot long, 252-foot wide carrier is too big to go through the Panama Canal, so in the coming months, Kitty Hawk will creep along the South American coastline and up through the Gulf of Mexico to its final destination.
Launched in 1960 and named after the North Carolina area where the Wright Brothers first flew a powered airplane, Kitty Hawk served the US Navy for almost 50 years before it was decommissioned in 2009.
Kitty Hawk was the last US aircraft carrier fueled by oil, a relic of an era before the arrival of nuclear-powered Nimitz-class ships.
Soon, all that will remain is a storied and sometimes tumultuous history that spans the Vietnam War and the bulk of the Cold War, as well as societal upheaval and transformation back home.
A race riot and the Vietnam experience
For a decade from the early 1960s, Kitty Hawk was a mainstay of the US force off the coast of Vietnam.
At times, its aircraft flew more than 100 sorties a day over Vietnam from what was called Yankee Station, the area of the South China Sea where US naval vessels steamed to launch strikes against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.
The ship and its air wing were later awarded a Presidential Unit Citation – an award honoring extraordinary heroism – for its actions in Vietnam from December 1967 to June 1968, including supporting US and South Vietnamese forces during North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in the spring of 1968.
Kitty Hawk saw its last combat over Vietnam in 1972, but during its final mission the carrier became host to what congressional investigators later called “a sad chapter in the history of the Navy.”
Race riots erupted on the ship amid rising tensions, after its Vietnam deployment was extended following a port call in the Philippines, according to reports on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
The accounts of what precipitated the incident vary. Some say it was set off as Black sailors were investigated for a brawl in a Philippine bar the night before the deployment.
Others say things snowballed after a Black sailor was denied an extra sandwich in the mess when a White sailor wasn’t.
Whatever the cause, the violence was substantial.
“The fighting spread rapidly throughout the ship, with bands of Blacks and Whites marauding through the decks and attacking each other with fists, chains, wrenches, and pipes,” David Cortwright, now a director at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in a 1990 article on Black resistance to the Vietnam War.
The riot and racial tensions aboard the Kitty Hawk were certainly reflective of the stark racial inequality in US society at the time.
Reports show Black sailors then made up less than 10% of the Kitty Hawk’s crew of 4,500. And just five of its 348 officers were Black, according to one report from the Naval History Command.
A congressional report on the incident the night of October 12-13, 1972, said the brawl left 47 sailors injured, “all but 6 or 7 of them” White.
And while that congressional investigation led to attempts by the military to address racial inequality, the subcommittee’s report itself is littered with prejudicial language revealing just how deep racial bias in the US ran.
“The subcommittee is of the position that the riot on Kitty Hawk consisted of unprovoked assaults by a very few men, most of whom were below-average mental capacity, most of whom had been aboard for less than one year, and all of whom were Black. This group, as a whole, acted as ‘thugs’ which raises doubt as to whether they should ever have been accepted into military service in the first place,” read the report’s concluding summary.
Still, the incident, along with others on Navy ships, prompted the service’s leaders to put new emphasis on programs started earlier by Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the then-chief of naval operations, aimed at improving race relations in the fleet.
As of December 31, 2020, Black sailors made up 17.6% of the service’s active duty force, according to Navy statistics.
Women, the Soviet submarine and an intelligence coup
Retired Capt. James Fanell said by the time he boarded the Kitty Hawk as an air wing intelligence officer in the ’90s, the race riot was long forgotten.
“Most sailors afloat are not historians, so they are looking forward to the next port call or operation,” he said.
But in the ’90s, another social issue was at the forefront – the integration of women into the fleet.
Fanell said when he first went to sea in 1987 on another carrier, the USS Coral Sea, there were no women aboard. “A decade later when we deployed on Kitty Hawk, I had eight female squadron and staff intelligence officers working for me – out of 11 total positions. A pretty dramatic turnaround,” he said.
Women now make up more than 20% of the US Navy’s active duty force.
In the years between the riot and the integration of women, Kitty Hawk was involved in a tense Cold War encounter with a nuclear-powered Soviet submarine that saw the US carrier come away with a piece of the sub stuck in its hull.
In March 1984, the Kitty Hawk-led Battle Group Bravo was a focal point of the naval portion of the annual Team Spirit joint exercises with South Korea.
Operating in open waters about midway between Japan and South Korea, the Kitty Hawk and its escorts had been playing what a Navy officer told the New York Times was a game of “cat and mouse” with the Soviet submarine, later determined to be K-314, a 5,000-ton Victor-class boat with a crew of about 90.
US forces had tracked and “killed” – or simulated their ability to sink – the Soviet submarine 15 times in the days leading up to the collision, according to a report from the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The carrier group then started practicing “deception techniques” to lose its Soviet tracker, according to a 1989 report on naval accidents titled The Neptune Papers from Greenpeace/Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
It worked to a degree.
Just after 10 p.m. on March 21, 1984, in trying to locate the carrier, the K-314 surfaced in its path.
The Russian military website Top War gives the sub’s side of what happened next.
“The (K-314) commander ordered the start of an urgent dive to avoid a collision. Shortly after the start of the dive, the submarine felt a strong blow. After a few seconds – a second powerful push. It was clear that the submarine did not have time to go to a safe depth, and it was hit by some of the American ships. As we learned later, it was a Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier.”
The 5,000-ton Soviet sub was no match for the 80,000-ton US carrier is this collision, said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy intelligence officer who saw the Navy’s report on the collision.
“Must have been scary as hell,” he said.
“Everyone on the Kitty Hawk expected the sub to go deep and were hoping to detect it on the other side,” he said, noting that a carrier can’t detect a sub in close proximity because of the noise of its propellers and the underwater pressure wave it generates.
“Instead, the (sub commander) apparently overestimated his distance from the carrier and didn’t start to increase his depth until it was too late. So, he left a portion of one of his screws (propellers) in the carrier’s hull,” Schuster said.
K-314 lost power and would later be towed to the Soviet port of Vladivostok.
Kitty Hawk continued on under its own power and with a trophy of the Cold War – that piece of the Soviet sub’s screw – embedded in its hull.
Also stuck to the carrier’s hull were tiles from the Soviet sub’s anechoic coating, polymers that enable it to be quieter in the water. Some described this as an intelligence coup for the US military, and the Kitty Hawk crew touted it by temporarily painting a red submarine “victory mark” on the carrier’s command center, the US Naval Institute said.
The later years
Kitty Hawk continued to be a vital part of the US Pacific Fleet for more than two decades after the Soviet submarine collision.
In the early 1990s, it would support US military operations in Somalia and act as the launch base for air strikes on Iraq, then ruled by Saddam Hussein.
In the summer of 1998, Kitty Hawk moved to Japan, with its home port at the naval base in Yokosuka, home to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, where it would spend 10 years as the US Navy’s only aircraft carrier based outside of the continental United States.
But now there is no home for Kitty Hawk in the US.
James Melka, a boilerman on carrier in the ’60s, led an effort by the Kitty Hawk Veterans Association to get the ship turned into a museum, like other carriers including the Intrepid in New York, the Midway and Hornet in California, the Yorktown in South Carolina, and the Lexington in Texas.
But the Navy rejected the idea in 2018, according to a report from United States Naval Institute (USNI) News.
“Nobody’s gonna know … what a Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carrier was,” Melka told USNI. “They’ll just see pictures. They won’t be able to see the actual ship and be able to walk on it.”
Fanell said memories of the carrier will be kept alive by the hundreds of thousands of sailors who served on its decks.
“And I am just one sailor,” he said. “Think of all the lives she touched and the memories created.”
When the aircraft carrier’s fate was sealed, Fanell sent a note to his former shipmates to remind them of their time together and what was about to be lost.
“(It’s) really sad in a way to think of all those memories losing the one thing that linked us all together … the USS Kitty Hawk,” he wrote.
“Life goes on and our memories fade away, just a bit faster when our ships are cut up for razor blades.”