Like the Jewel of the Nile in a movie by the same
name, the Jewel of the Emerald Coast is not a precious gemstone. This
jewel is the retired United States Naval Aircraft Carrier CVA-34, the
USS Oriskany, the last Essex Class super carrier of its kind to serve
on active duty. May 17th marks the annual anniversary of the Oriskany's
burial at sea in 2006, now resting in its final berth in 212 feet of water
on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico 25 miles south of Pensacola, Florida.
Since being sunk, the ship has become a valuable jewel to fisherman, recreational
divers and local merchants on the Emerald Coast.
Oriskany Battlefield: Bloodiest Battle of
the American Revolution. Click
Image for a larger view Image
The Navy named the renowned aircraft carrier after a strategic
battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Oriskany where the
Tryson County Militia under the command of General Nicolas Herkimer
defeated the British in the Mohawk Valley, New York on 6 August
1777. Historians credit this battle as key in turning the tide of
the Revolutionary War in favor of the Americans.
Originally designed and built to serve in World War II, the war
ended before the Oriskany was completed. However, the Korean conflict
prompted the Navy to finish her construction and commissioned her
on 25 September 1950. The Oriskany remained on active duty for more
than a quarter century, spanning two major wars and received two
battle stars during the Korean War and five battle stars during
Viet Nam deployments. From 1965-1975 she served nine continuous
months for every year on the gun line except one and accumulated
over four years total time in combat.
Not only will historians remember the Oriskany provided much of
the air power for the Viet Nam war, but that her officers and sailors
help found the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club while in North Viet Nam waters.
In June 1952, she also had the distinction of being the first aircraft
carrier to round Cape Horn. Individual colorful patches of the Tokin
Bay Yacht Club and the Cape Horn passage commemorate both events.
During her active duty phase the Oriskany, affectionately called
The Mighty O by her officers and crew,
appeared in two 1954 major motion pictures, The Men of The Fighting Lady,
starring John Wayne and The Bridges at Toko Ri, starring William Holden
and Mickey Rooney. She also had a cameo appearance in Capricorn One and
was mentioned in Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise.
During October of 1966 the famous comedienne Martha
Raye, also a registered nurse, was aboard the USS Constellation giving
a show when a catastrophic fire broke out on the Oriskany killing
44 officers and men. She immediately offered her services to help
treat the injured seamen, however the Oriskany's commander, Captain
Iarrobino, felt the conditions aboard were too dangerous for Miss
Raye and declined the offer.
Although unknown during her operational service, The Mighty O had
its own cast of future celebrities. Pilot Alan Sheppard, aboard during
the mid-1950s, was destined to become an astronaut for NASA. Aboard
during early Viet Nam was the late Admiral James B. Stockdale
On Fire! (Nationa Archives)
Click Image for a larger view
who ran as the US Vice President candidate with Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential
election. Another pilot, John McCain, became a United States Senator and
a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2008. Both Stockdale and McCain took
their last flights from the Oriskany and both were POWs in the infamous
Hanoi Hilton, a North Vietnamese prison camp.
After decommissioning in 1976, the future of The Mighty O remained uncertain
for almost three decades. The Navy considered various outcomes such as turning
it into a museum or selling it to Japan for a special project, but both
projects failed to materialize. The Navy then tried to sell The Mighty O
for scrap metal. That too failed so the Navy decided to bid out the ship
for the artificial reef program, the first and only US aircraft carrier
of its kind to do so. The state of Florida eventually won the bidding among
the other Gulf States wanting the ship to be sunk in their waters.
Island while in Pensacola
Click Image for a larger view
The Oriskany had to undergo preparation for sinking
both in Corpus Christi, Texas and Pensacola, Florida to ensure nothing
could hurt the environment or injure recreational divers. The US Environmental
Protection Agency required all toxic materials removed such as PCBs,
asbestos insulation, lead based paint and various liquids from 565
separate storage tanks. All surfaces then had to be cleaned by scorching
or by powerful hydro-blasters. With over one thousand separate rooms
in the ship, it took thousands of man-hours and over 8 months to accomplish.
Originally, the salvage plan allotted for 29 tons of waste and 24
semi trailer-truck size dumpster loads
to haul it, but the entire planned quota was met when only half way through
her cleaning. To finish the project twenty-six more huge dumpsters were
needed to haul away the excess waste.
The state of Florida required all cables, protruding objects and anything
else that could injure or trap a diver underwater be removed from the ship.
The entire wooden deck and over 200 miles of cable materials containing
PCBs had to be taken out. This additional work took more man-hours before
the ship could finally be sunk.
After the removal of hazardous materials and the salvage of over 1000 tons
of precious metals, The Mighty O left Corpus Christi towed by tug boat over
500 miles across the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico to Pensacola, Florida.
There, the ship was rigged for demolition.
On 16 May 2006, The Mighty O took her last voyage, towed into the
Gulf of Mexico 25 miles south of Pensacola then moored overnight
by four huge anchors above her permanent berth. Silently she waited
throughout the dark night to fulfill her destiny. The next day,
17 May 2006, an electronic charge sent through ten miles of detonation
cord blasted open twenty-two sea valves with plastic explosives
to begin the sinking. Thirty-seven minutes later, the USS Oriskany
slipped under the surface and came to rest on the bottom in an upright
position with just a slight lean. Only a foot difference separates
the depth from one side of the flight deck to the other, a span
of 145 feet. One side measures 135 feet from the surface, and the
other measures 136 feet.
Almost all Navy veterans of the Viet Nam war era agree that burial
at sea is a
The Mighto O awaits her fate (Nationa Archives)
Click Image for a larger view
fitting tribute for this heroic and decorated combat vessel. Even in its
final resting place, The Mighty O continues to serve.
More facts about the USS Oriskany can be found in The Mighty O; a 67-page
mini-history published by Patriot Media, Inc., Niceville, Florida at their
web site www.patriotmediainc.com