The US Navy decommissioned the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier in a ceremony in Virginia on Friday, officially bringing the storied 55-year career of a ship affectionately known as "The Big E" to a close.
The Enterprise had been removed from active service in 2012 and has since been docked at its home port in Norfolk, Va., where the military has been defueling the nuclear-powered carrier.
Essentially a floating military base, the Enterprise played a crucial role in foreign conflicts beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis up through the response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was one of the last Navy vessels to depart from the shores of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, supporting the final evacuation efforts there.
The Enterprise, officially the USS Enterprise CVN 65, was the eighth Navy vessel to carry that name. A new Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier presently under construction will carry on the name. It is scheduled to be put to sea in 2018, though construction of the Ford-class carriers have been marked with delays.
The Enterprise was built by the Newport News Shipbuilding Co., and was officially christened on Sept. 24, 1960, by Bertha Irene Franke, wife of then-Navy Secretary William B. Franke. At the time, it was the world's only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It was put to sea in 1961 and shortly after served as part of the successful naval blockade that prevented Russian warships from delivering missile components to the communist island of Cuba, part of the tense Cold War standoff between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, in what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1965, as fighting in Vietnam reached a fever pitch, the Enterprise's home port was moved from Norfolk, Va., in the Atlantic to Alameda, Calif., in the Pacific. The Enterprise served as a launching point for airstrikes on numerous deployments during the Vietnam War and eventually helped facilitate the U.S. evacuation through 1973. After that, its home port was again returned to Virginia.
The Enterprise served as the launching point for the first airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served multiple deployments in support of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars until it was taken out of service in 2012.
All told, the Enterprise logged more than 1 million nautical miles of sea travel, enough to sail the globe 40 times over its 51 years at sea.
Once personnel finish removing the ship's nuclear power load, it will be taken apart and the metal recycled, the Navy said. The Enterprise is the first of the Navy's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to be decommissioned.
Speaking to a crowd of thousands of current and former Navy personnel who served on the Enterprise, Capt. Todd Beltz, commander of the Enterprise, said the ship's role in shaping military history was thanks to the many men and women who kept her afloat.
"For all that Enterprise represents to this nation, it's the people that bring this ship to life," Beltz said. "So as I stand in this ship that we all care so much about, I feel it's appropriate to underscore the contributions of the thousands of Sailors and individuals that kept this ship alive and made its reputation. We are 'The Big E.'"