The US Navy aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk — a ship that served from Vietnam through the second Iraq war — is heading for the scrapyard in May, with the ship having begun its final sea voyage in January.
In the carrier’s 48 years of service, it saw not only countless battles and missions but also a collision with a Soviet submarine — and an ugly race riot. The ship is also a relic of a bygone era: fueled by oil instead of nuclear power, the carrier was the last of its kind in the US Navy’s arsenal.
Attempts to preserve US Navy’s Kitty Hawk fail
Toward the end of the ship’s life, the Kitty Hawk Veterans Association tried to get the carrier turned into a museum.
The US Navy noted that Kitty Hawk was “eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” according to its evaluation in 2010. However, attempts by the veterans association to turn the ship into a museum were unsuccessful because it was not possible for the ship to be put in a “donation hold.”
The 1,047-foot-long ship was launched in 1960, named after the area in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the Wright brothers made their historic flights in 1903.
USS Kitty Hawk’s Vietnam deployment
When the ship deployed to Vietnam, just a few years after its launch, it quickly distinguished itself and earned a US Presidential Unit Citation — a unit award that is considered equivalent to a sailor earning the US Navy Cross — for its actions between December 1967 and June 1968 during the fierce fighting around the Tet Offensive, in South Vietnam.
“The ship is recognized in professional circles as having been on Yankee Station during the toughest part of the war and against the most heavily defended area in the world,” US Navy Admiral John Hyland said.
The ship launched 185 major strikes, 150 of them against North Vietnam, with 65 hits on Hanoi and Haiphong.
USS Kitty Hawk involved in race riot
As the Vietnam War continued, the ship began to experience extended deployments and hardships that, according to the US Navy’s history, “produced a nearly intolerable strain on the crew.” This led to fights between white and black sailors “fueled by the racial tension endemic throughout the armed forces” over two days in October of 1972.
According to the official US Navy history, on the evening of October 11, “beginning in the mess decks … a series of incidents led to fighting between blacks and whites that spread across a number of areas of the ship, including sick bay and the flight deck.” US Marine patrols dispatched to deal with the violence were interpreted by some black sailors “as racist and (they) armed themselves with aircraft tie-down chains,” with the US Navy reporting that between 47 and 60 men had been injured in the violence.
The service’s description of the incident credits US Cmdr. Benjamin Cloud, a black sailor who was Kitty Hawk’s second in command, with playing a major role in defusing the situation. When the ship returned to San Diego, California that November, The New York Times reported that 27 sailors, all of them black, had been arrested.
The incidents led to “The Understanding Personal Worth And Racial Dignity” (UPWARD) program, which was aimed at “establishing a medium for addressing racial concerns,” the US Navy said in a statement after the events.
USS Kitty Hawk’s Soviet submarine collision
Years later, the Kitty Hawk collided with a Soviet submarine when the latter was surfacing in the Tsushima Strait between South Korea and Japan, with US Navy officials later noting that the sub had been shadowing the carrier for days.
With 25 deployments behind it, the Kitty Hawk is destined for the recycling yard in May.
In a January Facebook post about the ship, International Shipbreaking Limited, the company contracted to turn the carrier into scrap, said it plans to have challenge coins minted from the remaining brass on the Kitty Hawk, and also save some small sections of the ship for veterans.
The post explained that while the company is recycling the ship “at the lowest cost possible to the US taxpayer” — 1 cent — “the US Navy still owns both vessels and we will never have title.”
When catapult officers reach the end of their tour aboard a carrier, it is tradition to launch their boots off the flight deck. This "boot shot" was on USS Kitty Hawk in 1970. The Kitty Hawk is currently on her way to the scrapyard after being sold for 1 cent. #WarshipWednesday pic.twitter.com/JaD3Jjz2Sc
— U.S. Naval Institute (@NavalInstitute) January 19, 2022