By Larry Shaughnessy
The U.S. Navy has had eight ships named the Enterprise. The first was commandeered from the British in the early stages of the Revolutionary War by Benedict Arnold, before the America even had a navy and before he became America's most notorious traitor.
The seventh Enterprise was an aircraft carrier and a mainstay of the Navy's war in the Pacific during World War II. Three times the Japanese Navy said it had sunk "The Grey Ghost," but the Enterprise survived and is regarded as the most decorated warship in U.S. history.
But when the eighth USS Enterprise put to sea in 1962, it already had a place in American military history.
The ship's design replaced conventional boilers that had powered warships for decades with eight reactors, making it the world's first nuclear-powered carrier. It was longer, taller and faster than any warship the United States had ever launched.
A young fighter pilot named John McCain knew something about Naval history. Both his father and grandfather had been four-star admirals. He had previously served aboard the World War II-era carrier USS Interpid before ordered to the Navy's state of the art warship.
Also: USS Enterprise sailing off to history's scrap heap
"It really was a quantum leap, as much as we love the Intrepid. Between the Intrepid, World War Two and the USS Enterprise, it was exciting and it was an incredible experience to be on the first air wing on the USS Enterprise," McCain told CNN.
In October of 1962, the ship had just finished its maiden deployment when the White House and the Kremlin sparred over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
"We'd only been back a couple of weeks and they said, 'get out to the ship.' Nobody knew what we were doing, so we flew our airplanes out to the carrier as we were headed south," McCain said.
The Enterprise was one of the first U.S. ships to establish a blockade around Cuba, according to Navy documents on the Enterprise's history.
"I was launched a couple of times just to fly around, but not towards Cuba," said McCain, now the senior senator from Arizona. "They made sure we headed away from Cuba so as not to spark anything."
After 13 days, the crisis eased and the Enterprise returned to its home port of Norfolk, Va.
By 1965, it had been moved to the Pacific's Seventh Fleet and began six combat deployments to Vietnam. On Dec. 2 in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, the Enterprise became the first nuclear-powered warship in history to engage in combat. It launched 118 sorties against Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam.
While steaming off Hawaii en route to Vietnam, the Enterprise suffered its worst disaster on Jan. 14, 1969.
The flight deck was loaded with fully armed and fully fueled aircraft undergoing pre-deployment inspection drills. Sailor Michael Carlin called it "the single-most terrible and most glorious day in our history."
"An aircraft carrier, especially with fully fueled and armed aircraft on deck, if something goes wrong it's a floating fireworks factory," he said.
All it took was one mistake - an aircraft starter unit was parked too close to a rocket on a nearby fighter jet. The unit's exhaust heated up the rocket and it exploded, triggering disaster.
Carlin and his sailors ran to grab a fire hose.
"For the first time we're seeing all these guys that are down, of burns indescribable burns and wounds," he said.
But they couldn't help the wounded because the fire was spreading from jet to jet and the stern was full of F4 Phantoms. They each carried six 500-pound bombs and eight rockets and were loaded with 9,000 pounds of fuel.
All those munitions started to blow up. In minutes the entire stern was engulfed in flames and thick black smoke. Exploding bombs blew huge holes on the flight deck and fuel poured to the areas below.
"I didn't get injured, I got blown down four times," said Carlin whose team was on the fire hose closest to the burning aircraft.
The fire was put out but 27 sailors had been killed and another 314 wounded.
Fifteen planes were destroyed and the ship was badly damaged. But after emergency repairs at Pearl Harbor, the ship was back off the coast of North Vietnam by the end of March conducting combat operations.
The quick, determined response is why Carlin said the disaster was a moment of glory.
"The ship and crew fought back and never quit fighting until the thing was finally beaten down," he said.
After dozens of deployments around the world over the next three decades, the Enterprise was leaving the Persian Gulf for home when the hijack attacks struck New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
Without orders, the Enterprise turned around and steamed at maximum speed toward Pakistan. By October 7, warplanes on the Enterprise were among the first to launch retaliatory strikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It was the first of the Enterprise's 10 deployments to the Persian Gulf region in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Dec 1, the Enterprise will be deactivated and will make history again over the next three years. It will become the first nuclear-powered carrier ever decommissioned. After its nuclear fuel and eight reactors are safely removed, CVN-65, The USS Enterprise, will be cut up and sold for scrap.
But there's already a move underway to name CVN-80, a yet to be built carrier, as the ninth USS Enterprise.
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