One of the US Navy’s most iconic aircraft carriers, USS Kitty Hawk, is currently on its way to the scrapyard after being sold for less than a dollar, a stark reminder that its heyday has ended. The ship began its final journey in January and will arrive in a Texas ship-breaking facility by May.
Last year, International Shipbreaking Limited of Brownsville, Texas, acquired the ship from the US Naval Sea Systems Command, which supervises the disposal of decommissioned warships, for less than a dollar.
The Panama Canal cannot accommodate the 1,047-foot-long, 252-foot-wide carrier. As a result, Kitty Hawk is making her way along the South American coastline and through the Gulf of Mexico to its final location.
While en route to Texas, the aircraft carrier sailed through Uruguayan waters on April 2. During its years of service, the carrier witnessed not only numerous combat missions and had a collision with a Soviet submarine.
Quizás alguno más lo vio desde la costa de #Uruguay. Deseamos "buenos vientos" al @USNavy #USSKittyHawk, que está en viaje hacia Texas, donde será desmantelado. Agradecemos al buque por sus años de servicio y a #Uruguay por su autorización para transitar aguas uruguayas. pic.twitter.com/OjFXuhQOMJ
— U.S. Embassy Uruguay (@usembassyMVD) April 1, 2022
The carrier, however, was a remnant of a bygone era, as it was the last of its sort in the Navy’s inventory, powered by oil rather than nuclear power.
Kitty Hawk, which was launched in 1960 and named after the North Carolina area where the Wright Brothers first flew a powered airplane, served the US Navy for nearly 50 years before being retired in 2009.
Vietnam War and A Race Riot
Only a few years after it was commissioned, the ship was deployed to Vietnam. The ship carried out 185 major strikes, 150 of which were against North Vietnam, with 65 of them striking the Hanoi and Haiphong regions.
It immediately made a name for itself, gaining a Presidential Unit Citation – a unit decoration comparable to the Navy Cross — for its actions during the Tet Offensive’s heavy fighting between December 1967 and June 1968.
“The ship is recognized in professional circles as having been on Yankee Station during the toughest part of the war and against the most heavily defended area in the world,” Adm. John Hyland remarked when receiving the honor, according to a Navy history of the ship.
Meanwhile, as the Vietnam War progressed, the ship was subjected to longer deployments and challenges, which “produced a nearly intolerable strain on the crew,” according to the Navy’s record.
In the midst of growing tensions, racial riots erupted on the ship. The events that led up to the incident are described in a variety of ways. Some believe it began when Black sailors were examined for a brawl in a Philippine bar the night before the deployment. Others claim the situation escalated when a Black sailor was denied an extra sandwich in the mess but a White sailor was not.
According to the official Navy history, on the evening of 11 October 1972, “beginning in the mess decks … a series of incidents led to fighting between blacks and whites that spread across a number of areas of the ship, including the sickbay and the flight deck.
“Marine patrol was dispatched to deal with the situation, but some Black sailors perceived this as “racist” and “armed themselves with aircraft tie-down chains.”
Many reports suggest that Black sailors made up fewer than ten percent of the 4,500 crew of the Kitty Hawk at the time. One report from the Naval History Command stated that only five of the 348 officers were Black.
According to the service’s account of the incident, Cmdr. Benjamin Cloud, a Black sailor who served as Kitty Hawk’s second in command, was instrumental in controlling the situation. When the ship arrived in San Diego that November, the media stated that 27 sailors, all of them were Black, had been jailed and that 21 had demanded a court-martial.
The trials completely ended in April 1973, “with a handful of black sailors still in Navy jails and others discharged, but little light shed on what caused the racial disturbance aboard the aircraft carrier last October.”
Encounter with Soviet Submarine
On March 21, 1984, the Kitty Hawk Collided with a 5,000-ton Victor-class Soviet submarine, K-314, that was surfacing in the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan.
The sub had been shadowing the carrier for several days, according to US Navy authorities. The Russian military website Top War explains what happened that day from the perspective of the Soviets.
“The (K-314) commander ordered the start of an urgent dive to avoid a collision. Shortly after the start of the dive, the submarine felt a strong blow. After a few seconds — a second powerful push. It was clear that the submarine did not have time to go to a safe depth, and it was hit by some of the American ships. As we learned later, it was a Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier.”
The Navy’s top military official at the time, Adm. James Watkins, said the submarine’s commander “showed uncharacteristically poor seamanship in not staying clear of Kitty Hawk.”
A small piece of the submarine’s propeller remained stuck in the hull of the Kitty Hawk as a result of the incident. It was eventually retrieved and turned into a souvenir, which is currently in the collection of the Naval Historical Center.
After fragments of sound-dampening tile were retrieved from the carrier’s hull, the US Naval Institute said the collision “provided the US with intelligence about the anechoic coating on Soviet subs.”
The USS Kitty Hawk remained an important part of the US Pacific Fleet even after the Cold War ended, and it had a homeport at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan from 1998 until 2009, when it was retired and replaced by the USS George Washington.
Furthermore, it supported US military activities in Somalia and served as a launch platform for airstrikes against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the early 1990s. Her decline began after that, and she earned the moniker “Shitty Kitty” as a result of her bad condition.