Under tow and making barely two knots, the USS Oriskany seemed a shell of its former self. Once, it had been, to paraphrase John Paul Jones, a fast ship, going in harm's way. Now it was a derelict, old and crippled, its bulkheads stained with patches of rust that could have been lesions. Near where the mouth of the bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico, a tugboat nudged the ship around, and it was possible to appreciate its size—almost three football fields long and nearly 20 stories tall.
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Next to it, the salvage craft, tugs and Coast Guard patrol boats escorting it looked like nervous water bugs.
Several people stood on a beach near Pensacola Pass to see the old carrier off. Some had come a long way, and their memories went back many years to when they were young and the ship had been home. Two men were shooting video footage. Had they served on the ship? Yes, they said, in the late 1960s, off North Vietnam.
Did you come far?
"He came from Michigan, and I came from Pennsylvania," one said. "We're old shipmates. No way we would have missed this."
The Oriskany—named for a bloody Revolutionary War battle—was launched in 1945, too late to fight in the war that had secured aircraft carriers' place in military history. But the Oriskany went on to serve as a floating airfield off the Korean Peninsula. There was plenty of risk and little glory in the work, and when the war was over the ship did its part capturing this truth on film. Many scenes in The Bridges at Toko-Ri—the 1954 film about a reserve aviator (William Holden) called up from civilian life to fly combat missions over Korea—were shot aboard it.
After Korea, the Oriskany, known to some as the Mighty O, was modernized and routinely deployed to the Western Pacific. It had just returned from duty in the South China Sea when, in August 1964, Navy destroyers reported they were under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Some say the United States provoked the attack. Others are not convinced there ever was an attack. Cmdr. James Stockdale, who later led Oriskany's air group, was flying overhead during it—whatever "it" was. "[I] had the best seat in the house," Stockdale later said, "...and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there." Still, three days later, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing President Johnson to take whatever measures he thought necessary to resist North Vietnamese aggression.
The Oriskany suffered perhaps the most conspicuous losses of any carrier in that war. Stockdale was shot down in 1965, spent more than seven years as a POW, and in 1976 was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership and resistance while in captivity. Ross Perot tapped him to be his vice president on his Reform Party ticket in 1992; Stockdale died in 2005. Another Oriskany aviator "bagged" over North Vietnam was John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona and a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for president. It may seem improbable that two candidates for national office would have served on the same warship, but the Oriskany was that kind of ship.
The ship itself became a casualty in 1966 in the South China Sea. While moving magnesium flares into a storage locker, an ammunition handler snagged the safety wire and ignited a flare. It ignited others. At 4,000 degrees, the fire was hot enough to burn through three-inch steel. The ship's ventilation system sucked up the toxic fumes, which filled the forward spaces where many of the pilots were sleeping. Bob Rasmussen, a pilot, was waiting in the cockpit of his F-8 for the first launch of the day. "I saw smoke—a lot of it—coming from an area forward in the hangar bay, and then I heard the call for the fire-control parties," he recalls. "Then they called the ship to battle stations, and that's when you knew we had a problem." Forty-four men died in the fire.
In March 1973, the Oriskany completed its final combat cruise, having served 800 days on line during the Vietnam War. Only four carriers spent more time in combat in that war. There are lucky ships and jinxed ships, but the Oriskany was neither. Or perhaps it was both. According to men who served on it, the Oriskany was, above all, a fighting ship.