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USS Kitty Hawk vets bid their beloved ship farewell

The 4th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment out of Fort Lewis visited the USS Kitty Hawk Thursday. The group launched the first ground combat operation in Afghanistan by flying off the warship less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. - Photo by Jesse Beals
The 4th Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment out of Fort Lewis visited the USS Kitty Hawk Thursday. The group launched the first ground combat operation in Afghanistan by flying off the warship less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

Thousands turned out Thursday to say goodbye to the Navy's oldest active warship.

USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) veterans, their families and friends descended upon Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton to bid a final farewell to the ship.

David Stineson and his wife Debra traveled from San Antonio to visit the 48-year-old warship.

"It's neat to see all the people and hear all the stories," David said at Thursday's event. "People came from all over the country."

David served aboard the USS Kitty Hawk's air wing from 1979 to 1981. He brought Debra, his wife of 10 years, so she could see the ship he called home.

Thursday's visit was the first time David had been back to the warship since he left it in 1981. David said one of the strongest memories from his time aboard the Kitty Hawk was in the late 1970s when the ship did search and rescue assistance operations to aid Vietnamese refugees.

David said they picked up refugees in the South China Sea and took them aboard the ship.

"Some of them were dead, some of them were alive," he said.

David said when the Kitty Hawk returned to San Diego in 1980, the ship and its crew was greeted by a large crowd and awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation and the Battle Efficiency award as the best carrier in the Pacific Fleet.

"When we pulled into San Diego, there were boats there, news people everywhere ... that was a turning point in the military and the nation," he said. "We got a great reception and from that point forward, the attitude toward the military changed."

David also has fond family memories tied to the warship. David's brother, Brian, served with him on the Kitty Hawk from 1980 to 1981. The brothers invited their father, grandfather and some uncles, all veterans, aboard the ship for a short cruise and David said that is a very fond memory for both him and his brother.

Debra's brother, now deceased, also served onboard the Kitty Hawk from 1981 to 1983, so she was excited to visit the ship her husband, brother and so many other family members spent time aboard.

Harold Young, 63, and his wife Florence traveled from Spokane to visit the Kitty Hawk Thursday morning.

Harold served on the Kitty Hawk from 1978 to 1981 and vividly remembers his experience aboard the ship during the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970s to early 1980s because his first cruise as an officer took place during that time.

"That was the first time he was in charge of somebody," Florence said with a smile.

Harold said the warship was rumored to be heading to Korea to provide support or heading into the Indian Ocean. The Kitty Hawk ventured into the Indian Ocean, a first for U.S. ships at that time.

"It was the first time they'd had a fleet of U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean," Florence said. "Of course, it's fairly routine now."

Although the ship was gone quite often, Florence said she thinks fondly of her and Harold's time with the Kitty Hawk.

"They're good memories," she said. "It was the best of times and the worst of times."

Harold said he decided to come say goodbye to the Kitty Hawk Thursday because the ship meant a lot to him and for one other simple fact.

"This is the last ship I've served on that's still in commission," he said with chuckle. "The others have already been put in mothballs like me."

Harold said he lost touch with his former crew members over the years, but enjoyed chatting with other sailors at Thursday's tour of the ship's hangar bay.

"I keep looking at faces trying to see if I recognize anybody," Harold said.

"They've all gotten so old, you know," Florence laughed.

More than 2,000 people are expected to attend Saturday's formal celebration. Bremerton is the Kitty Hawk's new homeport. The ship will be decommissioned later this spring.

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