SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Today in Norfolk, Virginia, sailors, veterans and their families will say goodbye to the USS Enterprise. She was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier when she was commissioned in 1961. The Enterprise has served at the center of international events for half a century, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the war in Vietnam and to the Iraq War. NPR's Tom Bowman looks back at the iconic ship known as The Big E.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: When the Enterprise slipped into the waters off Norfolk for the first time, it was a modern marvel.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is The Big E, the Enterprise. The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The largest ship in the world.
NORMAN POLMAR: She's a 1,088 feet.
BOWMAN: That's naval expert Norman Polmar.
POLMAR: She was certainly the largest warship built by any nation up to that time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Like most large cities, it has its own airport, offices, electrical repair shops, trucks and vehicles of all kinds.
BOWMAN: It was, literally, a floating metropolis with 5,000 residents and the most cutting-edge engine of the day, powered by eight nuclear reactors. Polmar says sailors weren't afraid of radioactive leaks or explosions.
POLMAR: No problems at all with the nuclear plant, absolutely none. 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.
BOWMAN: How come?
POLMAR: Because these were the fastest, the largest, the neatest ships in the world.
BOWMAN: Though new, this was a ship with a history, 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.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port, where they're found to carry cargoes of offensive weapons will be turned back.
BOWMAN: It was October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President John Kennedy ordered a naval blockade. The Enterprise and her sailors were sent to take part.
POLMAR: The ship departed for Norfolk, you know. They made their phone calls. Goodbye, I hope I'm back here in a few days.
BOWMAN: Again Norman Polmar.
POLMAR: They were scared that this was the end, but they did their jobs.
BOWMAN: The standoff lasted 13 days, before Soviet ships turned around. Two years later, the Enterprise went on a two-month round-the-world cruise - the first without refueling. Nuclear power meant the ship could cruise almost indefinitely. And how long could a World War II carrier go before fueling up?
REAR ADMIRAL EUGENE TISSOT: About three days.
BOWMAN: That's retired Rear Admiral Eugene Tissot. He's commanded the ship during Vietnam. Some of the first bombing runs into North Vietnam flew from the deck of the Enterprise in 1965. And so did the last. Admiral Tissot watched from the bridge in early 1973 in the final hours of the war.
TISSOT: The last sortie of the war we flew off Enterprise. And one of our F-4 pilots was shot down and killed.
BOWMAN: Vietnam was the last major combat the Enterprise would see for some time. Between fights the ship went Hollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP GUN ANTHEM")
BOWMAN: It was the setting for one of the blockbuster films of the 1980s. Home to Maverick and Goose...
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BOWMAN: ...two of the pilots in "Top Gun." And the Enterprise found time to chase the only known Soviet sub captain with a Scottish burr in "The Hunt for Red October."
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BOWMAN: The Enterprise would eventually find real adversaries. Eleven years ago, Vice Admiral John Morgan was on the flag bridge of the Enterprise when he learned that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
VICE ADMIRAL JOHN MORGAN: You know, I reflexively picked up the phone and called the captain of the aircraft carrier and said redirect the battle group to the coast of Pakistan and make best speed to do so.
BOWMAN: The ship was supposed to return to Norfolk. But Morgan's gut told him this was bin Laden and the Enterprise would be going to war.
MORGAN: We wanted to get our nose pressed up against the glass if they needed us.
BOWMAN: The Enterprise was needed. Its warplanes flew some of the first attacks against the Taliban. And two years later, its pilots and crew would take part in another fight, against Saddam Hussein. Now, the Enterprise has come home to Norfolk for the last time. The ship will be scrapped, but the most famous name in the Navy will live on. A new ship called the USS Enterprise is planned.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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