Farewell, USS Enterprise

Sailors, veterans and their families are saying goodbye in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday to the USS Enterprise, which was the largest ship in the world and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when it was commissioned in 1961.

In its illustrious history, the Enterprise served at the center of international events for a half-century — from the Cuban missile crisis to Vietnam to the Iraq War.

And it had a distinguished Hollywood career as well, playing a leading role in the 1986 film Top Gun, which starred Tom Cruise as a young naval aviator.

When the Enterprise slipped into the waters off Norfolk for the first time, it was a modern marvel, more than 1,000 feet long. “She was certainly the largest warship built by any nation up to that time,” says naval expert Norman Polmar.

It was literally a floating metropolis, a home to 5,000 sailors and the most cutting-edge engine of the day, powered by eight nuclear reactors. Polmar says sailors didn’t fear radioactive leaks or explosions.

“No problems at all with the nuclear plant, absolutely none,” he says. “Most of the people that I’ve spoken with who served in early nuclear ships thought it was just fantastic to be assigned to them.”

“These were the fastest, the largest, the neatest ships in the world,” he adds.

A Long Line Of Enterprise Ships

And even though the Enterprise was new, this was a ship with a history. It was the eighth to bear the name Enterprise.

The first was a British vessel, captured during the American Revolution and renamed by the man who led that raid — Benedict Arnold.

The first carrier named Enterprise saw intense action in the Pacific during World War II.

Less than a year after the new Enterprise came into service, it started making its own history. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, President John Kennedy, a former sailor himself, ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. The Enterprise and its sailors were sent to take part.

“All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port, when they’re found to carry cargo of offensive weapons will be turned back,” Kennedy said at the time.

Polmar, the naval historian, says that “when the ship departed from Norfolk they made their phone calls and said goodbye I hope I’m back here in a few days. They were scared that this was the end but they did their jobs.”

The standoff lasted 13 days, before Soviet ships turned around. The Enterprise went on to set a world record by making a round-the-world cruise in two months in 1964 — the first ship to do so without refueling. Nuclear power meant the ship could cruise almost indefinitely.

A Role In The Vietnam War

By comparison, a World War II carrier could go about three days before it needed to refuel, according to retired Rear Adm. Eugene Tissot. He commanded the Enterprise during the closing days of the Vietnam War.

Some of the first bombing runs into North Vietnam flew from its deck in 1965 — and so did the last, says Tissot, who watched from the bridge in early 1973, in the last days of direct U.S. involvement in the fighting.

“The last sortie of the war we flew off Enterprise. And one of our F-4 pilots was shot down and killed,” he recalls.

Vietnam was the last major combat the Enterprise would see for some time. But during the hiatus, it went to Hollywood. The ship was the setting for one of the top films of the 1980s, as Cruise, aka Maverick, trained to become a fighter pilot in Top Gun.

Hollywood also called on the Enterprise to chase the only known Soviet sub captain with a Scottish burr — think Sean Connery — in The Hunt for Red October.

A Return To Combat

The Enterprise would eventually find real adversaries once again.

In 2001, Vice Adm. John Morgan was on the flag bridge of the Enterprise when he got a phone call from an aide who told him the World Trade Center had been attacked. Morgan had been in command of the Enterprise battle group only three days.

“I reflexively picked up the phone and called the captain of the aircraft carrrier and said redirect the battle group to the coast of Pakistan and make best speed to do so,” he says.

The ship was supposed to return to Norfolk. But Morgan’s gut told him the attack was the work of Osama bin Laden, and the Enterprise would be going to war. “We wanted to get our nose pressed up against the glass in case they needed us,” he says.

The Enterprise was needed. Its warplanes flew some of the first attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And two years later, in 2003, its pilots and crew would take part in another fight, this time against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Now, the Enterprise has come home to Norfolk for the last time, after more than 50 years at sea. The ship will be scrapped, but the most famous name in the Navy will live on. A new ship called the USS Enterprise is expected.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.