End of the line for USS Enterprise

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

The Navy expected the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to last about 25 years running on reactors developed in West Mifflin.

Instead, the USS Enterprise sailed the globe for nearly 52 years, serving in conflicts from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

“To be an Enterprise sailor is very hard, since the ship is so old, lots of things break, and there aren't parts to repair it,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Lippert, 21, of Duquesne Heights, who served on “The Big E” for 11 months over two deployments. “You have to be able to jury-rig things together to work.”

On Saturday, the Navy will deactivate its oldest operational ship in Norfolk during a ceremony expected to attract thousands of the estimated 250,000 people who served on her. Afterward, the Navy will decommission the ship. It expects to scrap the vessel within the next couple of years.

“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” Dennis Traeger, 65, of Murrysville said about the ship's retirement. He served aboard the Enterprise from August 1966 to February 1970. “But I'd just hate to see it just rust away in some harbor somewhere. I don't want to see it go down in disgrace. I'd rather see it reborn into something else.”

Traeger had what he described as “more of a city-slicker job,” performing clerical duties in the ship's personnel office. One of his most vivid memories goes back to Jan. 14, 1969, when the ship was outside Pearl Harbor. About 8 a.m., he was sitting at his desk with his feet up when the ship suddenly rocked.

He asked his chief, “What are they doing, landing planes without landing gear?”

A rocket had exploded because of overheated equipment, setting off blasts that killed 27 and injured more than 300.

“For four, five, six hours, there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Traeger, a safety specialist for Davey Tree Service. Repairs to the ship in Pearl Harbor took about six weeks.

The Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin was involved in the design and support of the ship's nuclear reactors. The reactors were built at another Bettis facility in Idaho, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Bettis officials said its commitment included research and development, design of the reactors, test procedures, training of sailors and safe disposal of the ship's nuclear material.

“The long life of USS Enterprise, which supported our nation's Navy in many critical moments throughout history, provides perspective on the importance of the work we do,” said spokesman Anthony Bradfield.

Many referred to the ship as a floating city because of its size and ability to make electricity and water to be self-sustaining.

“The biggest thing that stands out to me is the sheer amount of work we did there,” Lippert said.

It wasn't unusual to work an 18- or 19-hour day inspecting and maintaining aircraft, he said.

Stan Martin Sr., of Elkview, W.Va., served aboard the vessel during the Cuban Missile Crisis, said his son, Stan Martin Jr. of Hopewell.

The elder Martin was acting chairman of the ship's alumni association — the USS Enterprise CVAN/CVN-65 Association — before his death in May.

Martin said his father told him the ship's crew “worked 12-hour shifts.”

“There were airplanes constantly in the air. They did their duty, did their job, ate and slept. My father said he could see cargo ships with missiles under tarps on the decks,” he said.

Thanks to his father, Martin said, he visited the Enterprise several times.

“It's enormous,” Martin said. “You can look at pictures all day long and watch movies, but until you're actually on board one of those things, you just can't imagine.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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