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