After Almost 4 Decades, Aircraft Carrier USS John F. Kennedy Decommissioned

Friday, March 23rd 2007, 10:55 am
By: News On 6

MAYPORT, Fla. (AP) _ Sailors in blue lined the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy on Friday as guns boomed to commemorate the decommissioning of ``Big John'' after nearly 40 years of service.

Officers gathered in front of a screen displaying a large American flag, and speakers echoed the words of the carrier's namesake, including the famed line from President Kennedy's 1961 inauguration: ``Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.''

``What a bittersweet day,'' said Capt. Todd Zecchin, the Kennedy's final commanding officer. ``It is a glorious breath of life we've filled the ship with.''

The Kennedy was active in both Iraq wars and launched aircraft into hot spots around the globe during its service. At 1,050 feet long, it carried a crew of about 4,600 and 70 combat aircraft.

Lt. Cmdr. Vince U. Webster, the ship's administrative officer, born a month before President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, served two tours on the carrier and asked to come back for the final chapter in the Kennedy's legacy. He said the decommission brought mixed emotions.

``Happy that a lot of sailors on board will have closure so they can move on to their next career, but sad because this great warship will never be under way again,'' he said.

The warship was christened in May 1967 by Kennedy's then 9-year-old daughter, Caroline, and entered Navy service the next year.

Its in-port cabin was designed by the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and is the only room on a U.S. Navy ship with wood paneling, officials said. Among its pictures is one showing the president sailing with his daughter.

The cabin will be headed to a Navy museum. The carrier will be towed to Philadelphia, where it will be placed on inactive status.

Chief Petty Officer Aaron Shelenberger, 39, plans to retire shortly after the Kennedy is decommissioned. The Philippines native became a U.S. citizen earlier this month and sang the national anthem at a naturalization ceremony aboard the Kennedy.

``I'm part of history,'' Shelenberger said. ``With the Kennedy, it's special. You are part of the closing of this chapter.''

One of two remaining fossil fuel-powered aircraft carriers in the Navy, the ship supported Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1990, and was deployed in February 2002 to the North Arabian Sea during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

It also supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in June 2004, and its airwing dropped more than 54,000 pounds of bombs on Iraq.

The Kennedy, based in Florida since 1995, recently served as a training platform for Navy pilots to obtain carrier landing qualification. The Navy suspended the ship's flight operations about a year ago, citing faulty landing equipment.