The USS Kitty Hawk, one of the most recognisable aircraft carriers in the US Navy, is on its way to the scrapyard after being sold for less than a dollar, a stark reminder that its heyday is over. The ship set sail on its final voyage in January and is expected to arrive in a Texas shipbreaking plant in May.
The ship was purchased from the US Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees the disposal of retired warships, for less than a dollar last year by International Shipbreaking Limited of Brownsville, Texas.
The 1,047-foot-long, 252-foot-wide ship will not fit through the Panama Canal. As a result, Kitty Hawk is making her way to its final destination along the South American coast and through the Gulf of Mexico.
On April 2, the aircraft carrier sailed through Uruguayan seas her way to Texas. The carrier saw multiple combat missions and suffered a collision with a Soviet submarine throughout its years of service.
The carrier, on the other hand, was a relic of a bygone era, as it was the Navy’s last of its kind, fueled by oil rather than nuclear power.
Kitty Hawk served the US Navy for over 50 years before being retired in 2009. It was launched in 1960 and named after the North Carolina region where the Wright Brothers first flew a powered aeroplane.
A Race Riot and the Vietnam War
The ship was deployed to Vietnam only a few years after it was commissioned. The ship launched 185 major hits, 150 of which targeted North Vietnam and 65 of which targeted the Hanoi and Haiphong regions.
It quickly established a reputation, earning a Presidential Unit Citation – a unit honour equal to the Navy Cross – for its actions during the Tet Offensive’s hard fighting between December 1967 and June 1968.
According to a Navy history of the ship, Adm. John Hyland commented when receiving the medal, “The ship is regarded in professional circles as having been on Yankee Station during the roughest portion of the war and against the most heavily fortified territory in the world.”
Meanwhile, the ship was subjected to lengthier deployments and problems as the Vietnam War continued, which “created an almost intolerable strain on the crew,” according to the Navy’s records.
On the ship, race clashes erupted in the midst of rising tensions. The events leading up to the incident have been described in many ways. Some say it started when Black sailors were investigated for a brawl the night before the deployment in a Philippine bar. Others report that the scene erupted because a Black sailor was denied an extra meal in the mess while a White sailor was not.
On the evening of October 11, 1972, “a series of incidents began in the mess decks… a series of incidents led to fighting between blacks and whites that expanded across a number of areas of the ship, including the sickbay and the flight deck,” according to the official Navy history.
“A Marine patrol was dispatched to deal with the incident, but some Black sailors saw this as “racist” and “armed themselves with aircraft tie-down chains,” according to the report.
According to accounts, Black sailors made up less than ten percent of the Kitty Hawk’s crew of 4,500 at the time. According to one report from the Naval History Command, only five of the 348 officers were African-American.
Cmdr. Benjamin Cloud, a Black sailor who served as Kitty Hawk’s second in command, was important in handling the situation, according to the service’s version of the incident. When the ship arrived at San Diego in November of that year, the media reported that 27 sailors had been arrested, all of whom were Black, and that 21 had requested a court-martial.
“With a few of black sailors still in Navy cells and others discharged, but little light cast on what triggered the racial disturbance onboard the aircraft carrier last October,” the trials finished in April 1973.
Battle with a Soviet Submarine
The Kitty Hawk collided with a 5,000-ton Soviet Victor-class submarine, K-314, that was surfacing in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan on March 21, 1984. According to US Navy officials, the submarine had been following the carrier for several days. Top War, a Russian military website, discusses what transpired that day from the Soviet perspective.
“To avoid a collision, the (K-314) commander ordered the start of an emergency descent. The submarine received a powerful impact shortly after the dive began. A second forceful push follows after a few seconds. The submarine clearly did not have enough time to reach a safe depth, and it was attacked by American destroyers. It turned out to be a Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier.”
The submarine’s commander “showed uncharacteristically poor seamanship in not staying clear of Kitty Hawk,” according to Adm. James Watkins, the Navy’s top military official at the time.
As a result of the incident, a little piece of the submarine’s propeller remained caught in the hull of the Kitty Hawk. It was finally recovered and converted into a keepsake, which is now housed in the Naval Historical Center’s collection.
The US Naval Institute reported the accident “supplied the US with intelligence regarding the anechoic coating on Soviet subs” after sound-dampening tile shards were recovered from the carrier’s hull.
Even after the Cold War ended, the USS Kitty Hawk remained a major member of the US Pacific Fleet, with a homeport at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan from 1998 to 2009, when it was retired and replaced by the USS George Washington.
In the early 1990s, it also supported US military operations in Somalia and acted as a launch pad for bombings against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Following that, she began to deteriorate, earning the moniker “Shitty Kitty” as a result of her poor health.