PENSACOLA, Fla. – Hundreds of Navy veterans plan to see the USS Oriskany off on her final voyage — a trip to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where the rusted aircraft carrier will become a massive artificial reef.
Many, like Boyd Tong of Phoenix, plan to rent boats and watch as the Oriskany is sunk 24 miles off Pensacola Beach on Wednesday.
"I expect it will be a little emotional," Tong said at a Pensacola Naval Air Station tribute for the Oriskany on Saturday night. More than 500 veterans, spanning the Oriskany's nearly 30 years of service, attended the tribute to the "Mighty O."
The ship is set to become the world's largest intentionally created artificial reef. It will be the first sunk under a pilot program to dispose of old warships through reefing. City leaders hope it will turn the area into a destination for scuba divers and sport fishers from around the world.
"I would rather see it sunk at sea, it spent its life at sea, than see it torn up by the salvage yards," said David Brooks, a petty officer from Mount Dora who recorded information about aircraft catapult operations aboard the ship.
He will be on hand Monday as the Oriskany is towed from Pensacola Naval Air Station to its sinking site. Explosives will be detonated Wednesday inside the aircraft carrier, slowly sending it to the sea floor.
The ship was originally set to go down in summer 2004, but plans were delayed by environmental permit problems and hurricanes, sending project costs soaring to more than $20 million.
The Oriskany was commissioned in 1950, serving through the Korean and Vietnam wars, and decommissioned in 1976. The ship was among those used by President John F. Kennedy as a show of force in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.
Twelve Oriskany pilots, including U.S. Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz., became North Vietnamese prisoners of war.
Jack Witter of Fort Pierce served aboard the Oriskany from 1952 to 1953 as a petty officer working with aviation ordnance.
"I was an 18-year-old kid and I grew up aboard that ship. I saw a friend get killed when a bomb exploded on the deck," he said. "Back then, that ship was about the most exciting place in the world to me."