By Jim Haley Special to The Herald
I was impressed the very first time I saw the USS Nimitz, in October 1986.
There was a tiny bit of rust on the hull, but overall it was clean. It didn’t have diesel stains smeared across its superstructure like its pier-mate. And the Nimitz crew was busy.
The USS America aircraft carrier, still in service, was moored across Pier 12 from the Nimitz at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. The two warships afforded a striking contrast.
The diesel-powered America, scarred by exhaust that left a layer of soot, was being readied for a lengthy stay in the shipyard for routine maintenance after a long deployment. There was little activity on the America’s side of the pier.
The Nimitz, on the other hand, was bright and beautiful. It was also bustling, as the crew lifted tons of equipment and food into its belly in preparation for a deployment to the east Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea.
And then it would make the trip around Cape Horn in South America, head north and arrive in Puget Sound.
The Nimitz was slated to be the first aircraft carrier stationed at Naval Station Everett under a plan then to disperse the U.S. fleet. But plans changed, and, as it turned out, the USS Abraham Lincoln was here first. The Nimitz didn’t arrive to be the centerpiece of the Everett base until 2011.
Commissioned in 1975, the nuclear-powered Nimitz is the first of, and namesake for, a class of vessels able to travel hundreds of thousands of miles at a time without needing to stop for gas. It is one of 11 big aircraft carriers, all nuclear-powered, now in the U.S. fleet.
The scheme then was for the Nimitz to come to Puget Sound in 1987 and remain at Bremerton until enough construction work was completed at Naval Station Everett. Instead, the Navy later decided to send the Nimitz back to the Norfolk area for major work and refueling of its two nuclear reactors.
When Herald photographer Dan Bates and I traveled to Norfolk in fall 1986, our experiences with the military and Navy life were limited.
We wanted to see the big ship, talk to civic leaders about the Navy and learn more about the crew and their families.
After all, the Navy was building a base in Port Gardner. Everett and Snohomish County were about to become a Navy town.
The theory of adding new bases in the 1980s rested on security and economic interests that were both increasing overseas, and these carriers and their support ships would be able to help defend those interests anywhere in the world. It’s a theory called “forward presence.”
And some thought that the emergence of China and North Korea as military threats made good reason for major naval presence in the north Pacific.
Bates and I toured the ship and its maze of corridors, an unending number of decks and seemingly limitless compartments.
We saw the frenzy of activity and directed chaos as the crew loaded supplies, scraped paint, checked out sophisticated electronic gear and replaced worn skid-resistant surfaces on the flight deck, a 4 ½-acre landing space for some 80 warplanes.
Nearly 3,000 sailors and their families were soon to head across the continent and away from the sprawling Norfolk base, the economic heart and soul of the Hampton Roads area on Chesapeake Bay.
We talked to some of the crew. Some dreaded the move across the country. Others were looking forward to the adventure. Some had ties in Washington state. Many of those requested Nimitz duty to eventually be closer to family or friends.
We saw the “Nimitz Room,” so named for World War II fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the ship’s namesake. It is full of ship memorabilia, as well as a large portrait of the admiral. On a message board within the ship, we saw a sign seeking someone to share the drive across the country to Bremerton.
In the community, there was concern about eroding the Navy’s influence, and the loss of what then was $30 million in payroll a year. The ship also carried food and other commodities — ranging from toilet paper to lubricating oil — adding another $10 million to the area’s economy.
Fast-forward eight months to June 1987.
The Nimitz had sailed around Cape Horn and was nearing the end of deployment. Photographer Bates and I were invited to witness the final air operations of the deployment while it was still hundreds of miles away from San Diego.
As is normally done, airplane squadrons were to fly off the carrier and return to their various bases, in California, at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor and elsewhere. Then the Nimitz would dock at North Island in San Diego to let air support crews depart.
We flew to San Diego, rented a car and headed for North Island and a waiting C-2 Greyhound turboprop. The powerful Grumman airplane is designed to land on aircraft carriers to ferry supplies, mail and passengers to the big ships.
Passengers sit with their backs to the front to limit effects of the rapid stop when the plane catches one of the arresting cables stretched across the deck. Facing backward, the view was limited but I could tell we were flying closer to the ocean.
The Nimitz’s fantail suddenly flashed into view, and almost immediately we went from well over 100 miles per hour to standing still. The belly hook of the C-2 caught the arresting cable. We were aboard the Nimitz.
After a briefing, we were issued ear plugs to protect us from the thunderous noise of dozens of powerful warplanes, jets and turboprops. I stood on the “island,” the narrow section of the ship that juts up above the flat flight deck.
We had seen the busy preparations for deployment in Norfolk, but had no concept of how the ship’s cold metal would be transformed in seconds by the crew and equipment into a choreographed ballet of lethal firepower.
Jet after jet was maneuvered into place and hooked onto the powerful steam catapults that hurled them off the deck at 150 miles per hour.
I watched from above while Bates got a nearly head-on view of departing aircraft — and some startling photos.
My view was from the carrier’s island, a 150-foot structure on the ship’s starboard side that serves as the carrier and flight operations center. I was on what the Navy calls “vulture’s row,” a balcony platform with a great view of the flight deck.
Crewmen in different-colored shirts indicating their jobs performed their tasks. Those on the deck constantly repeat that they must keep their heads “on a swivel” to protect themselves from the obvious dangers of flying jets and cables, and from being sucked into a jet intake.
Bates and I were on one of the last planes to be catapulted off the Nimitz that day. The C-2 Greyhound returned us to the naval air station at North Island.
It was a week or so later that I next saw the Nimitz, from the window of an office building just down from the pier where the big ship would call home in Bremerton.
In fact, I was startled by the ship’s size, more than three football fields long.
While a throng of family members waited on the pier to be reunited with loved ones, I had been hanging out alone in the office with an admiral, constructing a story for that afternoon’s edition of The Herald.
While I was concentrating on my work, the ship eased out of the distance and snuggled up to the pier. What was startling when I looked up was that it took up the entire view from the window. I had momentarily lost a sense of the mammoth ship’s size. Nimitz-class carriers are the largest warships ever built.
Our experiences with the Navy and a family’s Navy life were brief but rewarding.
I came away with a greater appreciation of the discipline it takes to be on a ship’s crew, the many skills needed to keep things running, the need for constant coordination and the rigors of both the life at sea and the heartache of separation from loved ones.
It was a message I tried to convey to the Snohomish County reading public over the next two decades.
About Jim Haley
It was 1966 when Jim Haley sat down in front of a clunky Underwood typewriter and wrote his first story for The Herald. A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, Haley for years covered the efforts to bring the Navy to Everett and reported on its people and progress once it arrived. Haley retired in 2008 after a many-storied career.