Monday, August 11, 2008
2008 marks the 25th anniversary of the first deployment of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). As those of you who read this blog know, I served in the US Navy aboard that ship, and I was also aboard during that historical first deployment.
Ask any sailor about what a deployment is like and depending on who you talk to, when you talk to them, and whether they had a few adult beverages when you talked to them, they'll tell you that a deployment was the greatest time in their lives, or that they would rather have their fingernails pulled out one by one and have an appendage lopped off with a dull blade all while ABBA is pumped into their ears at deafening volume rather than going through another deployment. But one thing that both those who love cruises and those who hate them do agree on, is that the day the ship finally comes home is the best day of the whole experience. What made that first deployment of the Carl Vinson so special was that the inaugural cruise was also a homeport change. We were leaving the Tidewater region of Norfolk/Newport News, Virginia to the sunny climes of the San Francisco Bay Area, more precisely Alameda, California which is an island city that sits in the bay between Oakland and San Francisco.
We left Pier 12, Norfolk Naval Station on a cold, gray, dreary March 1, 1983 with a few hundred people on the pier seeing us off. The USS Independence (CV-62) was along side to wish us fair winds and following seas. Indy was a venerable old carrier she was who had seen a lot of ports, and traveled a lot of miles in service to her Nvay and her country. We wanted to make her proud. During the period of March 1-to Oct 28, 1983, the Vinson steamed over 50,000 miles. The cooks produced over 4,320,000 meals, the flight deck crew shot aircraft off the pointy end and caught them on the fat end over 10,000 times. 2/3rds of the crew crossed the line and became loyal subjects of Neptunus Rex for the first time, and the Vinson showed the flag in 10 ports throughout the world, providing her crew the rare opportunity to see places they had only heard about or read about in books: Monte Carlo; Casablanca, Morocco; Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Perth, Western Australia; Subic Bay, Phillipines; Hong Kong; Sasebo, Japan; Pusan, South Korea; Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.
Fast forward to October 28, 1983. The day begins about 25 miles off the coast of Northern California. The crew has been turning and burning for over 240 days, including two stretches of 64 days straight at sea with only a 7 day port visit to Perth to break up the monotony. They are anxious to see America for first time since March. The call goes out from the PA system: "Away the man the rail detail!" Hundreds of sailors spill out of the island and the catwalks onto the flight deck dressed in spotless dress white "cracker jack" uniforms. They run to the edges of the flight deck and line up, arm's length apart in the traditional exercise known to navies around the world as "manning the rail." A few days earlier, the Vinson bade farewell to its air wing, 80-90 aircraft of a wide range of functions, and the pilots and sailors who fly and maintain them. As the last plane, an F-14 was launched off the deck, the Air Boss played the Hallelujah Chorus over the flight deck PA. Now the flight deck was quiet, strangely empty for the first time in eight months. While the crew was manning the rail, the Tigers, male relatives of the crewmembers who were invited to ride the ship into San Francisco from Pearl Harbor assembled on deck to watch the upcoming festivities. The Tiger Cruise is a Navy tradition which allows the crew to invite fathers, sons, brothers, and other male relatives aboard ship so that they can get a taste of life aboard a working Navy vessel. Young kids with their eyes wide with wonder walked the halls and passgeways enchanted by what their daddy or big brother does for a living. Fathers and grandfathers, many of whom former sailors relived their times at sea and marveled at the new technology and the massive size of the Vinson. They had never served aboard a ship that big and that sophisticated in their time.
By this time, the shoreline of San Francisco can be seen in the distant horizon. The carrier's making about 10 knots. Below decks, the crew was busy cleaning compartments, finishing up on maintenance, and those scheduled to go on liberty or leave once the ship's tied up were prepping uniforms or civvies and seabags ready to hit the beach. Chatter throughout the ship ranged from how to get from Alameda to Oakland or San Francisco, to what the bars were like. Husbands were preparing to meet their wives and children. Single guys were preparing to meet other kinds of women. The "ordies", or Aviation Ordnancemen, the crazies responsible for maintaining the bombs and missiles and the equipment to support them filled the weapons elevator shafts with hundreds of ballons. At a signal from the bridge, they open the flight deck elevator hatches and the balloons float out of the shaft and into the Northern California sky. At the same time, the flight deck PA system erupts with the sound of Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" The guys manning the rail are probably wondering what posessed the bridge to pick this song, but despite its hokiness, the words are very much apropo. "Everywhere Around the World/They're coming to America. Everytime that flag unfurls/ they're coming to America. "
As the Golden Gate Bridge cames into view, the thick gray fog that is business as usual in San Francisco started to burn off. God himself seemed to indicate His approval of the Vinson because just as the bow of the carrier slides under the bridge, a rainbow appears in the sky over San Francisco. not just once but twice. The men on the rail give a cheer. Traffic on the bridge comes to a standstill as the mighty ship glides underneath the world famous bridge. The people on the bridge wondering what the crew is feeling right now. The carrier slows to about 5 knots in order to make the tricky passage into the bay. A tug comes alongside dropping off the pilot who'll assist the bridge crew in navigating the route to Alameda. Marin County to port, the City by the Bay to starboard. A few who snuck up to the weather decks relay the info to those in the bowels of the ship. We're in the bay. We're almost home!!! The level of excitement felt by the crew rises perceptibly. The buzz that resonated through the Vinson rose a little higher. The sun shines over San Francisco opening up the city like a pearl released from its shell. The ship passes by the Presidio, coming upon Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. Pleasure craft remain a safe distance away, but their occupants wave American flags as the Vinson passes by. To port, sits the legendary island prison of Alcatraz. No doubt, many of the members of the crew felt that this cruise was the equivalent of their own personal prison sentence, their own Alcatraz. More tugs come alongside to nudge the big ship along. No doubt that many of the bridge crew had never been in the Bay before, and no matter how much they studied the charts, they would need an experienced hand to show them where the tricky spots were.
The ship starts to turn right past Alcatraz, and the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge comes into view. It's not long now, a half hour maybe less. Treasure Island comes alongside to port. The Embarcadero to starboard. More boats shadow the Vinson, most of them waving the Stars and Stripes, but it wouldn't be San Francisco if there wasn't a protester or two, a few boats hang signs protesting the arrival of yet another war machine into the Bay, but the men on the rail take it in stride. That's why ships like the Vinson do what they do. Navy men may not agree with what civilians think of their mission, but we will defend their right to the death to say it. One looks up to the mast of the ship, and there are dozens of signal flags flying off the halyards. The signalmen know what message they carry, but the crew attach different meanings to the brightly colored flags. "Hello, San Francisco! We're the Carl Vinson and we'd like to make your acquaintance." Along with those signal flags, the 10 x 12 foot American flag designated for holidays and special occasions flys stiffly in the breeze. below Old Glory flys the flag of California, the state of our new home. In the tradition of manning the rail, those on the deck give three cheers to San Francisco and Oakland, and if one listened carefully they could here those cities cheer back.
Finally, the last major move. The ship is stopped and the tugs manuever it to make the big turn to port and to Alameda. The pier can be seen at this point. But there's no indication as to how many people are there to welcome us home. The excitement on the pier rises as the great ship comes into view. The ship is lined up and starts it's stately approach. No more than 2-3 knots. As Vinson comes closer, it becomes apparent that the ship's arrival is somewhat of a big deal in Alameda. We can see that there's another carrier in port. It's none other than the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the first of the nuclear powered carriers, and our big sister as it were. The Big E had been making Alameda its home port for years, and what a touch to have the first and the latest nuclear carriers alongside each other. The Big E's crew shows its hospitality by having its crew manning the rails and rendering a salute to the Vinson as she comes closer to the pier. The men on the deck can now see the pier clearly, and the sight is enough to make even the most jaded sailor weep. The pier is lined from one side to the other and from one end to the other with families, friends, and dignataries. All are waving flags and carrying signs welcoming their particular sailor home. Even though I had no one there to meet me that day, I felt happiness for those who did. Every foot the ship comes closer to pierside, the roar of the crowd becomes that much louder. More and more sailors come from below decks to witness the final moments of the cruise. i was working in the wardroom galley on the 03 level that day, and even though I was in cook's white's, I made my way to the nearest catwalk to see what was going on. An officer tried to stop me saying that I wasn't in proper uniform to go topside, I replied "Sir, with all due respect, I'm a plankowner, and I've waited two years for this day. " He didn't say anything more. Near the large bollards used to tie the ship to the pier, seamen from the Enterprise were stationed to receive the lines that would make the ship fast. The Vinson glided alongside the pier like she had been doing it for twenty years. A shot from a line gun rang out and a thin rope was launched to the pier. Attached to that line was a thicker line and to that the 12 inch diameter line that would moor the ship. The Big E linesmen retrieved the line and hurriedly pull it to shore. A few seconds later the first main line was attached to the pier and with a single blast from the ship's whistle, and those most anticipated words: Moored, Shift Colors!! USS Carl Vinson is moored at Pier 2, United States Naval Air Station, Alameda, California!!! The first ever cruise of the Carl Vinson came to an end. Five thousand people on the pier erupted at the same time twenty five hundred crewmen cheered a shout of victory. The sound could be heard all the way across the bay in San Francisco. It was over. All the long hot days, the stress of the drills and working 14-16 hour shifts, plus standing watches. For a little while, the ship and its crew could stand down, catch its breath, and get to know its new surroundings.
Even when I think about it today, it makes me choke up a little. I was able to experience another homecoming when the USS California came home after it's first WestPac, but there's nothing like experiencing your first homecoming, especially for us plankowners, because we were the first crew, we had to set the standard.