Among the ideas to preserve the Oriskany was a quixotic scheme to tow it to Japan as part of a proposed "City of America" project in Tokyo Bay. The project failed, perhaps mercifully. A civilian contractor bought the ship for salvage in 1995, then went out of business. The Navy repossessed the Oriskany, and towed it from Washington State to Texas, where it was to be cut up for scrap. But the Navy, which had many retired ships on its hands, came up with another idea. Why not turn the Oriskany into a reef?
In 2004, the Navy offered the ship to Florida, which eagerly accepted the gift. Some Floridians wanted it sunk off Fort Lauderdale, but others sought to sink it in the gulf off Pensacola, the "cradle of naval aviation." Not all sailors liked the idea of sinking a warship on purpose. McCain said at the time that he had hoped his old ship would be turned into a museum, but he added that its new use would "provide a lot of recreation" and "as long as people like me are alive, the memory of the ship will be alive."
There are few natural reefs in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. The bottom is as sandy as a desert. To create habitat for coral and fish, anglers and divers have sunk all sorts of things—old cars, busted culverts, washing machines. I have been diving on a number of these artificial reefs, and it is marvelous to see a column of fish circling above a pile of old rubble while, all around, there is nothing but smooth sand and empty water. Even the smallest reef attracts an improbably vast and diverse amout of life. And nothing would approach the Oriskany. In fact, it would be the largest artificial reef in the world.
After extensive efforts to remove hazardous materials from the ship, the Oriskany was towed from Texas to Pensacola in 2004. By now, the ship was a rusting hulk and hard to look at, if you had known it when it was in the fleet. Nick Eris, who had served on the ship in 1960 and now sells real estate in Pensacola, went to see it. "It was like I had been stabbed in the heart," he says. "I never went back there after that. Just too painful." The ship's agony was prolonged when the Environmental Protection Agency found PCBs on the flight deck, and contractors spent months removing the contaminated planking. When the hurricane season approached, the Navy towed the Oriskany back to Texas—where it was hit by a hurricane. All told, the cost of turning the ship into a reef climbed from the initially estimated $2.8 million to more than $20 million. Still, the Navy, which was picking up the tab, maintains that it saved money, because storing an old ship or cutting it for scrap is even more expensive, in the long run, than sending it to the bottom.
As the date for its sinking drew closer, area dive shops made bookings—and local hospitals trained personnel in the treatment of diving injuries. A ceremony for old Oriskany hands this past May drew more than 500. On the morning of May 17, some 400 boats were on hand, from elegant yachts to small outboards. One pilgrim who rode a Jet Ski to the site added a touch of carnival atmosphere, but the overall mood was somber. At 10:25 local time, 500 pounds of C-4 explosives opened the Oriskany's hull. Smoke obscured the ship. Naval engineers had predicted the sinking might take as long as five hours. It went down in 36 minutes. The fantail disappeared, water covered the flight deck, and the bow rose ponderously before vanishing under the waves.
Art Giberson, who had been the ship's chief photographer in 1969 and '70, witnessed the sinking through a camera lens from a bobbing yacht. "I'm glad it was that way," he says. "Working keeps you from feeling some things." Lloyd Quiter, who was on the same yacht, had served as a boatswain's mate on the Oriskany between 1968 and '71. As the ship slipped away, he blew a last, mournful call to quarters on his brass boatswain's pipe. For a long time after that, he couldn't talk.
The next morning, Travis Allinson, a salvage diver who had worked for three years to ready the ship for its sinking, strapped on his tanks and went in the water, 24 miles southeast of Pensacola. The bottom was 212 feet below him; the Oriskany's superstructure, just over 60 feet. The site, though it is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is unmarked (its GPS coordinates are public knowledge). Which is how divers want it. "The visibility was OK for the first 20 or 30 feet," Allinson said of that first dive on the world's largest artificial reef, "and, then, when I got down on the ship, it cleared up until you could just see forever. And it was perfect. She was sitting up just like she was supposed to. I looked around, and there were a couple of remoras following me. So the fish were already finding her. She was doing what we'd put her down there to do. It was definitely the right way to go. Now she has a whole new life."
Geoffrey Norman is the author of 15 books, including Bouncing Back, about the POW experience in Vietnam.