For this Memorial Day, May 30, 2005, the Essex Class aircraft carriers can be remembered, as well as the men that served aboard them. Built in greater numbers than any other fleet carrier, a handful are still left. USS Yorktown CV-10 is a Charleston, South Carolina, USS Lexington CV-16 at Corpus Christi, Texas, USS Intrepid CV-11 at New York City and USS Hornet CV-12 at Alameda, San Francisco Bay Area, California. All of these are museum ships and even with financial difficulties still have a future. The only future in store for the Last of the Essexes is a home for fish. Of the 26 Essex Class fleet carriers two were cancelled, Iwo Jima and Reprisal, some were finished after the Second World War and one was kept unfinished. The unfinished carrier was USS Oriskany CV-34. With the advent of the Korean War Oriskany was finally completed but instead of the standard Essex configuration, a new island and other modifications were fitted. Other members of the class were subsequently fitted in the same configuration, which in cruise books of the era was called the Orisikany modification. Mighty O served throughout the Korean War and then a decade later during the Vietnam War.
During a vacation at the beach, I happened to be about 20 minutes from the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola NAS. I had no interest in baking on the beach and as the rest of the family was preparing to get down to the sand and surf, I was eagerly getting my camera, storage cards and batteries ready for my first photo run to the best museum of its type in the world. As I waited for my opportunity to vacate the condo on my photo recce mission, I was glancing through the newest edition of Navires & Histoire magazine. This was the April 2005, #29, issue and there in the current events section was a photograph of the USS Oriskany. The caption stated that the ship was towed to the Port of the Pensacola and arrived on December 20, 2004 to prepare her for sinking as an artificial reef. As I drove over to the museum I wondered if the Oriskany was still there. At the entrance to the NAS, I asked the Marine gate guard about the Oriskany. he said that she was not moored at the NAS but instead was at the city Port of Pensacola. I decided that the next day, May 28, I would find the last of the Essexes.
Having never been to downtown Pensacola I just headed north on FLA 292 as it was an evacuation route from the beach, it had to cross some major east-west street. After it jagged to the west I kept going north until I crossed Main Street. The next was 1st Avenue. With names like that, they surely had to lead downtown. I turned right on 1st Avenue and in a few minutes was downtown. I should have turned on Main Street as I would have seen the Oriskany earlier. I turned south on Palafox and clearly saw the carrier looming to the south. There is a nice parking area among the new buildings at the southern terminus of Palafox and through two of the new buildings I could see the old Oriskany. As I got out of the car and walked past the buildings, it was suddenly clear the the Mighty O was in sad shape, marred by paint chipping and rust everywhere. Some desultory workmen were going about their jobs on board and every once and awhile one would walk out of a door to the deck side catwalks and go up to the flight deck. The area around the ship is blocked off by fences or temporary fences, so you can't get too close, unless you have a boat. While I was there a boat can close to the stern with the passengers taking photographs. In fact using a boat is the only way you can approach the stern. I walked around the ship to the entrance of the enclosure, hoping that my military ID would get me closer for better photos. No luck, the young gate guard, to this civilian facility, told me I had to have official business to go into the compound. With no official business to conduct, I made my way back to the park.
As I was taking more photographs, two gentlemen were engaged in a conversation about the Oriskany. As it turned out both had served on the Mighty O. One was a member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club having been aboard in 1969 and the other served after the war on the last far east cruise of Oriskany. If you look at the state room exhibit entitled Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club at the museum, you will notice an Oriskany cruise book on the table. He recounted how the bunk structure was removed and the crew was ordered to scrape away the deck paint to bare metal. In some locations, bare metal was not found, as a hole opened to the deck below due to the rusting away of the deck. The Vietnam veteran recounted how the crew was paid in the compartment at the tip of the bow, with the windlasses, right under the flight deck, as the pay officer handed out cash from a table stacked with money. Of course he was flanked by two armed guards just in case some wise guy got any ideas. Both Oriskany men compared notes on their favorite ports of call in the orient. As it turns out, one of the men appears at the park every at noon, rain or shine, to talk to any interested party about the Oriskany.
The Oriskany arrived at Pensacola on December 20, 2004 to prepare her for sinking as an artificial reef. One source said it would be 20 miles south of Pensacola and another said 25 miles. She will be sunk to remain upright on the bottom. The top of the island will be under 60 feet of water, so as not to constitute a navigational hazard. Workmen were removing asbestos and any other substance deemed hazardous to the marine eco-system. Of course an Environmental Impact Statement was required and the EPA Boffin assigned the job was 2/3 through with the study when he died. Well, a new EPA Boffin was appointed to do the study and of course in the best EPA tradition, he wouldn't use any of the earlier study but had to start from square one, all at extra expense for the tax payer. This fiasco actually served to extend the life of Oriskany for a little bit. Although the plan was to sink her in 2005, it now appears that she will be towed back to Corpus Christi, Texas. The Navy didn't want her at Pensacola during hurricane season, which is fast approaching, and apparently Corpus Christi is far less susceptible to a hurricane than Pensacola, which was really pasted by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Now, it appears that her sinking will not be to 2006, possibly as late as December 2006. She will be brought back to Pensacola first.
If you have a chance, go see the Old Lady before she disappears beneath the waves. It is a bitter sweet experience. The Oriskany is in such poor condition that saddens the viewer but she is the Last of the Essexes. Although former crew members of the Might O concede that she is past restoration, they still proud of their former ship in spite of her sad appearance now.