BREMERTON, Wash. —The conventional aircraft carrier era drew closer to a close Saturday with the departure of the USS Independence from Naval Base Kitsap.
A red-and-orange offshore tug towed the 58-year-old "Indy" on a two-month trip to oblivion. They'll sail around South America to International Shipbreaking in Brownsville, Texas, where the flattop will be dismantled like several before it. USS Constellation and USS Ranger, former berth mates at Puget Sound's Naval Shipyard's Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility, are already being scrapped there.
Only two fossil-fueled carriers will remain. Still in Bremerton is the USS Kitty Hawk, which the Navy is holding in reserve until the new USS Gerald R. Ford joins the fleet. A Wilmington, North Carolina, group is lobbying to place the ship, decommissioned since 2009, as a floating museum alongside the battleship North Carolina. The USS John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in 2007 and is mothballed in Philadelphia. The Navy placed it on donation hold for use as a museum or memorial.
Those are the last two carriers that are good candidates to become museum ships because nuclear-powered ships that followed will get too torn up during removal of their reactors. The Independence wasn't in shape to become a tourist ship because many of its parts were stripped to support the active fleet, and it's been in the mothball fleet for nearly two decades with minimal upkeep.
The Independence, commissioned Jan. 10, 1959, was the fourth and final Forrestal-class carrier. The ship made one tour off Vietnam in 1965, carried out airstrikes against Syrian forces during the Lebanese Civil War and enforced the no-fly zone over southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch. In 1998, it was decommissioned in Bremerton, where it remained until Saturday. Mike Murray and Keith Armstrong served during different stages of its life.
Murray, 65, came aboard in June 1973 as a young ensign fresh out of the Naval Academy. A surface warfare officer, he participated in three six-month deployments during the stint. He vividly remembers Gen. Alexander Haig visiting the ship and speaking to junior officers.
"We asked him for advice and he said, 'Gentlemen, be ready to fight,'" Murray said of Haig, who went on to become secretary of state for President Ronald Reagan.
Murray also won't forget September 1974. After a bomb exploded in the cargo compartment of TWA Flight 841, the Indy steamed to the Ionian Sea crash site and spent three days retrieving what little remained of the airliner, its crew and passengers.
Murray, of Silverdale, attended pilot school and returned to the Independence in 1979 in an SH3 Sea King. He earned a medal for heroism in aerial flight for the first of four times he was forced to ditch it in the open ocean because of a materiel failure. He lost one of his engines to a compressor stall. Without it, he couldn't hover, so he put the chopper down in 10-foot seas, at night, while keeping the other engine running. After 45 minutes, at first light, he pushed it to full power. The bad engine exploded, but he was able to fly back to the Independence and make a no-hover landing.
Murray served 22 years, including time on four aircraft carriers.
More than 10 years later, in 1991, Armstrong came along. The ship was nearing the end of its life.
"It was just kind of piecemealed together," said the aviation boatswain's mate on one of the catapults. "We had leaks in our berthing. It was like an old house. You could fix it, but a week or month later it would just break again."
Armstrong, 44, launched planes from the edge of the flight deck by hitting the fire button. It was a lot of work for a short rush.
"If I was to do it again, 100 percent I would not pick that job," he said. "It was long hours and dirty, but a lot of fun. I liked that the plane went right over you when you shot it. You had the jet blast and the roar of the plane. For an 18-year-old seeing that for the first time, it was like Christmas."
Armstrong, of Bremerton, served four years. He now works as a business agent at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
The Independence for years has been the first thing people see as they enter Bremerton from the south. It leaves a void, but memories like those shared by Murray and Armstrong, will remain.