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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

The following article appeared in the May 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine shortly before Enterprise's keel was hauled ashore, and the last vestiges of the ship broken apart and hauled away.

This article is property and copyright of its owner(s) and is provided here for educational purposes only.

The "Big E" Dies With Her Boots On

Last winter, a deafening staccato roar echoed through the cavernous hangar deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The ragged din was punctuated by an occasional boom as gigantic chunks of her steel superstructure broke loose and fell screeching against torn bulkheads. The glare of white fire slashed the dark spaces below decks.

"The Enterprise was one of those rare combinations - a rugged ship on which everything nearly always worked the way it was supposed to, and whose complement of officers and men always seemed to function with miraculous teamwork and spirit."

The scenic and sound effects were nothing new to the "Big E." Launched at Newport News in 1936, the mighty flattop was in the thick of nearly every major Pacific battle during World War II. On June 4, 1942, in the Battle of Midway - remembered in Navy circles as "The Stalingrad of the Pacific" - the big aircraft carrier got her baptism of fire in a hell-roaring fight that saw her own squadrons kill three Japanese carriers and a cruiser. From then, through the Coral Sea and Solomons campaigns, the Big E's guns and planes were seldom silent. In her second engagement she absorbed a thundering cascade of Jap bombs and torpedos - the first of seven terrible batterings she was to take from Kamikazes, torpedo bombers and enemy subs before the end of the war. After each one, the gallant lady patched up her wounds and returned to fight again. All told, she fought in 20 of the 22 naval battles in the Pacific and was credited with sinking 71 enemy ships and destroying 911 of his planes.

But this time she won't be back. The chattering racket was not her 40-mm. antiaircraft batteries spattering the sky with flack, but a battery of air hammers chewing up her flight deck. The booming roars of tumbling steel involved no enemy bombs. The fires glared from oxyacetylene torches. All last winter the Big E was coming apart systematically, piece by piece, in a dreary shipyard on the Hackensack River in Kearney, N. J. As you read this the last chunks of her once great hull are rumbling away in gondola cars to the melting pots.

William H. Ray, Enterprise crewman from 1943 to 1946, looks on as CV-6 awaits the breakers in Kearney, New Jersey, 1958.

Dismantling a 21,622 ton, 827-foot seagoing monster takes a lot of doing - you don't just start chopping her willy-nilly from top down. Careless changes in balance and buoyancy would capsize her or set up stresses that would bend her backbone and split her wide open. More than a year ago, when the Enterprise was bought by Lipsett, Inc. for $561,000 (she had cost more than $19 million to build), the company turned her over to W. Henry Hoffman, their square-jawed, veteran ship-demolisher. Hoffman had directed the dismantling of the battleships New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming shortly after the war, and was the master mind behind the nearly impossible job of cutting up the fire-weakened hulk of the French liner Normandie after it had been righted and refloated.

The first job on the Enterprise, says Hoffman, was to cut down her 36-foot mast and lower it to the deck so she'd clear the East River bridges on the way out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once tied up in the Hackensack, 100 men swarmed over the big ship armed with oxyacetylene torches and jack hammers, fed by hoses that snaked across the decks in every direction. First to go was the bridge and island structure, sliced into great vertical sections by the torches, boomed over the side in 15-ton chunks and lowered into waiting gondola cars. The biggest piece measured 36 feet long, 15 feet wide and 9 feet high.

But the biggest nuisance was the flight deck. "There's a prevailing idea that all old carriers had teak flight decks," says Hoffman. "They haven't - most were Douglas fir, and so was the Big E's. The fastest way to get it out was to smash it apart with air hammers." For weeks, rows of men, shuddering over the bouncing bars of their demolition weapons, marched slowly down a flight deck equal in size to three football fields, and sent the splinters flying. And for weeks bonfires roared in the yard as incredible mountains of lumber were burned.

Out came the three huge airplane elevators - "One hundred percent aluminum," says Hoffman - sliced by the torches into 8 by 20-foot slabs that could be stacked in the railroad cars. Hull and deck plating, cut into 8 by 40-foot chunks, soared away on the cranes. In the meantime, hundreds of miles of heavy copper cable from the ship's complex electrical nervous system was hauled up on deck and chopped into two foot sections by a thumping table shear that operated like a guillotine. The cable chunks were tossed like logs onto fires where the insulation was burned away so the valuable copper conductors could be melted down later at the scrap yard.

Torch cutters began to whittle away cautiously at the 140-foot stern overhang - removing the entire fantail in one gigantic piece. Then off came a chunk of bow superstructure, to balance the fore and aft weight. Nibbled away first at one end, then the other, the once mighty Enterprise gradually assumed the look of a row of building blocks, stacked four high in the center and dropping away in giant steps to the water line at each end.

"You've got to watch your stresses like a hawk," Hoffman points out. "When the top decks are off, rain water collects in the hull and can add a lot of weight where you don't expect it. Then, too, there's no buoyancy in the bow keel - it's a dead weight tugging against the rest of the ship." You could see what he meant when you stared down at the 140-foot, sword-like projection of steel jutting forward from the fat, tapering hull. To check the stresses along the ship's deck plates and hull structure, Hoffman prowled through her each morning with a delicate strain gauge, ordering so many tons taken from here and moved to there, like a chemist adjusting a balance, but on a Paul Bunyan scale. "If you don't do it," he says, "you're heading for trouble."

The veteran ship un-builder can cite a dozen grim examples of near catastrophes on other salvage jobs. In one instance, the hull of a big liner, in the process of demolition, cracked in two places reaching far below the water line from heavy strains on the structure in an unexpected storm. Hoffman saved it by putting a crew to work sewing two gigantic canvas tubes which he wrapped around the hull over the splits and inflated like a couple of tires.

To remove the Enterprise's heavy, nonbuoyant chunk of bow, crews first loaded tons of scrap steel in the empty well of the aft boiler room. The effect was like putting a fat man in the stern of a light dinghy. The bow lifted and the burners went to work with their torches.

Hoffman is proudest of the way he solved the problem of removing the carrier's four monster shafts and propellers. "The outboard shafts extended 85 feet from the hull housings, and they were still four feet under water after we'd lightened her up as much as possible," he reveals. "They weighed 26 tons apiece, plus 13 tons for each propeller. So I sent down a skin diver who put a buoyed cable choker around the shaft. Then the diver sat on the shaft, near the housing where it entered the ship, and burned a deep notch in the top half of it with an underwater torch. When he finished, we burned off the outboard bearing supports - and the whole shaft broke right off, just like a tree being felled. We picked up the buoy, hooked the choker to the hoist on a 50-ton gantry crane, and lifted the whole works out of the mud. In two days, all the shafts and propellers were up in the yard."

Two of the three hangar deck bulkheads painted with Enterprise's war record, in 1958. Though saved for possible use in a memorial, by 1965 the paintings were weathered beyond possibility of restoration (Hoffman Collection).

With shafts out, sternbacks could be burned away and the upper decks cut down until there was nothing left in the water but a small chunk of center section. When that is gone the Big E will live among the great legends in our military annals. A few scraps of her will still be around, however. The rounded skirt of her fantail is destined to become a monument in center field on the diamond of Hoffman's favorite Little League ball team in River Vale, N. J. And the section of steel bulkhead containing her battle record was cut out intact for posterity. Few ships in history can boast the achievements emblazoned on that sheet of steel. Beside her impressive record of kills is the long row of battle stars, nine Navy Commendations and a Presidential Unit Citation - the first ever given to an aircraft carrier.

The Enterprise was one of those rare combinations - a rugged ship on which everything nearly always worked the way it was supposed to, and whose complement of officers and men always seemed to function with miraculous teamwork and spirit. B. J. Oglesby, a member of her crew through the great ship's early campaigns, wrote to Popular Mechanics and explained some of the factors that made her the number one fighting ship of her time.

"Her crew," says Oglesby, "was the cream of the crop, made up of highly trained enlisted men with high-school education or better, and officers who were nearly all Naval Academy graduates. Our chief petty officers were outstanding men in more ways than one. Bing Miller and Jelly Jones, two of the Navy's great baseball players were among them; so was Chief Sobeloff, the fleet boxing champ. Our aerographer, Chief Lindemann, was the Navy's top enlisted weatherman, and no one in the fleet knew more about engines than our chief machinist's mate, Krup[1], who was later beheaded by the Japs on Guam.

"But the number one reason for the spirit aboard was ... Captain C. A. Pownall, who commanded her during the critical training period just before war broke out. He was a stern - but understanding - C.O. who demanded nothing less than perfection - and got it. As a result, we held many fleet honors. Our communications department won the coveted 'C' for excellence; we held three 'E's' on the five-inch gun mounts, an engineering 'E,' and boasted the top baseball, basketball, softball, and rowing teams in the fleet. Our rowing team won the International Battenberg Cup. This striving for the best extended through our air group whose fighters always strafed closer, whose dive bombers waited just a little longer to release bombs, and whose torpedo planes pressed in to spitting distance before dropping their fish. This great competitive spirit was largely responsible for the fantastic record of enemy planes shot down, ships sunk, and shore installations destroyed during the real hostilities, and may explain why the Big E was able to continue fighting after suffering, on several occasions, what would have been mortal damage to a less efficiently run ship.

"Another factor was the personal conviction of every man aboard that it was our job to avenge Pearl Harbor. We had come into Pearl on December 8, 1941, to find ships still burning and the stench of the dead on the air. Every man was hopping mad to refuel, rearm, get back to sea and kill the enemy. That burning desire to kill the enemy was still in me when I left the Enterprise months later, and didn't disappear until long after I returned to the United States as an instructor in a training school in Florida. I have talked to many other shipmates who had the same experience.

And the hard fact is that no ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II did more to "kill the enemy" than the far-famed fighting lady - Big E.

[1] Sic: Michael L. Krump, CMM(PA), a Big E plank-owner, was transferred to Naval Station Guam on 4 January 1940.

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