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USS Oriskany (CV-34)

USS Oriskany (CV/CVA-34), nicknamed Mighty O, The O-boat, and Toasted O, was an Essex-class aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, named for the Revolutionary War Battle of Oriskany. She served in Korea and Vietnam, and was finally sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 to serve as an artificial reef and a diving site.

Construction

The name Oriskany was originally assigned to , but that hull was renamed when the keel was laid in 1942. CV-34 was laid down 1 May 1944 by the New York Naval Shipyard, launched 13 October 1945, and sponsored by Mrs. Clarence Cannon. Construction was suspended on 12 August 1947, when the ship was approximately 85% complete. Oriskany was redesigned as the prototype for the SCB-27 modernization program. To handle the new generation of carrier aircraft, the flight deck structure was massively reinforced. Stronger elevators, more powerful hydraulic catapults, and new arresting gear were installed. The island structure was rebuilt, the anti-aircraft turrets were removed, and blisters were added to the hull. Blistering the hull (also known as adding bulges) increases the cross-sectional area of a ship's hull, thereby increasing its buoyancy and stability. It also provides increased bunker volume. In the case of the Oriskany, this would have been for aviation fuel. These features would have been crucial to a ship that had so much topside weight added after its original design. Oriskany was commissioned in the New York Naval Shipyard 25 September 1950, Captain Percy H. Lyon in command.

1950 – 1956

Oriskany departed New York 6 December 1950 for carrier qualification operations off Jacksonville, Florida, followed by a Christmas call at Newport, Rhode Island. She resumed operations off Jacksonville through 11 January 1951, when she embarked Carrier Air Group 1 for shakedown out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After major modifications at New York Naval Shipyard 6 March through 2 April, she embarked Carrier Air Group 4 for training off Jacksonville, then departed Newport 15 May 1951 for Mediterranean deployment with the 6th Fleet.

Having swept from ports of Italy and France to those of Greece and Turkey, thence to the shores of Tripoli, Oriskany returned to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on 4 October 1951. She entered Gravesend Bay, New York 6 November 1951 to offload ammunition and to have her masts removed to allow passage under the East River Bridges to the New York Naval Shipyard. Overhaul included the installation of a new flight deck, steering system, and bridge. Work was complete by 15 May 1952 and the carrier steamed the next day to take on ammunition at Norfolk, Virginia 19 May22 May. She then got underway to join the Pacific Fleet, steaming via Guantanamo Bay, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Horn, Valparaíso, and Lima, arriving San Diego, California, on 21 July.

Following carrier qualifications for Air Group 102, Oriskany departed San Diego 15 September 1952 to aid UN forces in Korea. She arrived Yokosuka 17 October and joined Fast Carrier Task Force 77 off the Korean Coast 31 October. Her aircraft struck hard with bombing and strafing attacks against enemy supply lines and coordinated bombing missions with surface gunstrikes along the coast. Her pilots downed two Soviet-built MiG-15 jets and damaged a third on 18 November.

Strikes continued through 11 February, attacking enemy artillery positions, troop emplacements, and supply dumps along the main battlefront. Following a brief upkeep period in Japan, Oriskany returned to combat 1 March 1953. She continued in action until 29 March, called at Hong Kong, then resumed air strikes 8 April. She departed the Korean Coast 22 April, touched at Yokosuka, and then departed for San Diego 2 May, arriving there 18 May.

Following readiness training along the California coast, Oriskany departed San Francisco 14 September to aid the 7th Fleet watching over the uneasy truce in Korea, arriving Yokosuka 15 October. Thereafter she cruised the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the area of the Philippines. After providing air support for Marine amphibious assault exercises at Iwo Jima, the carrier returned to San Diego 22 April 1954. She entered San Francisco Naval Shipyard for overhaul; the overhaul was completed 22 October when she stood out to sea for the first of a series of coastal operations.

Oriskany arrived at Yokosuka on 2 April 1955, and operated with the Fast Carrier Task Force ranging from Japan and Okinawa to the Philippines. This deployment ended 7 September and the carrier arrived Alameda, California 21 September.

She cruised the California Coast while qualifying pilots of Air Group 9, then put to sea from Alameda, 11 February 1956, for another rigorous Western Pacific (WestPac) deployment.

1957 – 1969

Oriskany returned to San Francisco 13 June and entered the shipyard to undergo the SCB-125A modernization program on 1 October. She decommissioned there 2 January 1957. Oriskany received a new angled flight deck, aft deck edge elevator, enlarged forward elevator, and enclosed hurricane bow. Powerful new steam catapults replaced the older hydraulic catapults. The wooden flight deck planking was also replaced with aluminum planking.

Oriskany recommissioned at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, 7 March 1959, Capt. James Mahan Wright in command. Four days later, she departed for shakedown out of San Diego with Carrier Air Group 14 embarked. Operations along the West Coast continued until 14 May 1960, when she again deployed to WestPac, returning to San Diego 15 December. She entered San Francisco Naval Shipyard 30 March 1961 for a five-month overhaul that included the first aircraft carrier installation of the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS).

Oriskany departed the shipyard 9 September for underway training out of San Diego until 7 June 1962 when she again deployed to the Far East with Carrier Air Group 16 embarked. She returned to San Diego 17 December 1962 for operational readiness training off the West Coast.

The carrier again stood out of San Diego 1 August 1963 for Far Eastern waters, with Carrier Air Group 16 embarked. She arrived Subic Bay 31 August 1963; thence to Japan. She stood out of Iwakuni, Japan the morning of 31 October en route to the coast of South Vietnam. There, she stood by for any eventuality as word was received of the coup d'etat taking place in Saigon. When the crisis abated, the carrier resumed operations from Japanese ports.

Oriskany returned to San Diego 10 March 1964. After overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, she steamed for refresher training out of San Diego, followed by qualifications for Carrier Air Wing 16. During this period, her flight deck was used to test the E-2 Hawkeye, the Navy's new airborne early warning aircraft. She also provided orientation to senior officers of eight allied nations.

Oriskany departed San Diego 5 April 1965 for WestPac, arriving at Subic Bay on 27 April. By this time more United States troops had landed in South Vietnam to support Vietnamese troops against increased Viet Cong pressure. Oriskany added her weight to the massive American naval strength supporting South Vietnam. In combat operations that brought her and embarked Carrier Air Wing 16 the Navy Unit Commendation for exceptionally meritorious service between 10 May and 6 December 1965, she carried out over 12,000 combat sorties and delivered nearly 10,000 tons (9,100 tonnes) of ordnance against enemy forces. She departed Subic Bay 30 November and returned to San Diego 16 December.

Oriskany again stood out of San Diego for the Far East 26 May 1966, arriving Yokosuka 14 June. She steamed for "Dixie Station" off South Vietnam 27 June. Wearisome days and nights of combat shifted to "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin 8 July. In the following months there were brief respites for replenishment in Subic Bay. Then, back into the action that saw her launch 7,794 combat sorties.

The carrier was on station the morning of 27 October 1966 when a fire erupted on the starboard side of the ship's forward hangar bay and raced through five decks, killing 44 men. Many who lost their lives were veteran combat pilots who had flown raids over Vietnam a few hours earlier. Oriskany had been put in danger when a magnesium parachute flare exploded in the forward flare locker of Hangar Bay 1, beneath the carrier's flight deck. Subsequent investigation showed the flare functioned as designed and the cause of the fire was user error. A seaman threw the ignited flare back into the weapons locker where the flares were kept for storage, instead of throwing it over the side into the water; this allowed the entire storage locker to ignite and caused horrific damage. Some of her crewmen jettisoned heavy bombs which lay within reach of the flames, while others wheeled planes out of danger, rescued pilots, and helped quell the blaze throughout the next three hours. Medical assistance was rushed to the carrier from sister aircraft carriers Constellation (CV-64) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42). Later investigation by Captain Iarrobino of the Oriskany and analysis by the Naval Ammunition Depot in Crane, Indiana, showed that one in every thousand flares could ignite accidentally if jarred. Five crew members were court-martialed as a result of the incident but were acquitted. After this incident and others, the flare design used by the Navy was changed to a safer design immune to accidental ignition, and crews were increased to stabilize numbers so all activities could be properly supervised .

Oriskany steamed to Subic Bay 28 October, where victims of the fire were transferred to waiting aircraft for transportation to the United States. A week later, the carrier departed for San Diego, arriving 16 November. San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard completed repairs 23 March 1967 and Oriskany, with Carrier Air Wing 16 embarked, underwent training. She then stood out of San Francisco Bay 16 June to take station in waters off Vietnam. Designated flagship of Carrier Division 9 in Subic Bay 9 July, she commenced "Yankee Station" operations 14 July. While on the line, 26 July, she provided medical assistance to the fire-ravaged attack carrier Forrestal.

On 26 October 1967, then-Lieutenant Commander John McCain flew off of Oriskany in an A-4 Skyhawk on his 23rd bombing mission of the Vietnam War. He was shot down that day and was a Prisoner of War until January 1973.

Oriskany returned to Naval Air Station Alameda, 31 January 1968, and entered San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard 7 February for an eight month overhaul. Upon completion of work, the carrier underwent refresher training and flight qualifications before deploying to the Far East in April 1969.

1975 – 2004

Following twenty-five years of service, Oriskany was decommissioned 30 September 1976 and laid up for long-term storage in Bremerton, Washington, where the carrier was maintained as a mobilization asset. Reagan Administration proposals to reactivate Oriskany were rejected by the United States Congress on the basis of the ship's poor material condition and limited air wing. The cost of reactivation was estimated at approximately $520 million for FY 1982 ($}} in ). At the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reduction of the U.S. Navy's active force, Oriskany was recognized as being obsolete and was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1989. Her hull was stripped of all equipment that could be reused or recycled. The ship's bell (removed during decommissioning in 1976) is now on display in Oriskany, New York, and various parts were scavenged to support the USS Hornet museum in Alameda, California and other Navy ship museums.

Oriskany received two battle stars for Korean War service and five for Vietnam War service.

Proposals were made in the early 1990s to refurbish ex-Oriskany and display her in Tokyo Bay as part of a planned "City of America" exhibit. Congressional legislation was initiated to transfer Oriskany, but the project failed due to lack of financing.

Oriskany was sold for scrap by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service on 9 September 1995 to Pegasus International, a start-up company at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA. The contractor towed the ship from Bremerton to Vallejo, but the contract was terminated for default on 30 July 1997 due to lack of progress. While berthed at Mare Island in rusted and decrepit condition, ex-Oriskany was used as a setting for the Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come (1998) as part of the representation of Hell.

The Navy retook possession of the ship and after a few more years at the former Mare Island Navy Yard, the ship was towed in 1999 to the Maritime Administration's Beaumont Reserve Fleet in Beaumont, Texas, for storage pending availability of funding for its disposal.

2004 - artificial reef

The Navy announced 5 April 2004 that it would transfer the former aircraft carrier to the State of Florida for use as an artificial reef. In September 2003, the Navy awarded a contract to Resolve Marine Group / ESCO Marine Joint Venture for the environmental remediation work necessary for sinking the ship as an artificial reef. The contractor towed the ship to Corpus Christi, TX in January 2004 and completed the environmental preparation work in December 2004.

Ex-Oriskany was the first warship slated to become an artificial reef, under authority granted by the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act (Public Law 108-136). She was originally projected to be sunk with controlled charges south of Pensacola by June 2005. Exhaustive ecological and human health studies were conducted by Navy scientists in consultation with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to demonstrate no adverse impact from reefing the ship. Completion and peer review of a complex Prospective Risk Assessment Model developed in consultation with EPA, the first for any ship reefing project, was necessary to support EPA's February 2006 decision to issue a risk-based PCB disposal approval for the estimated 750 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls contained in solid form, mostly integral in the insulation layers of the electrical cabling throughout the ship. Based on EPA's approval, after a public comment period, the ship was towed to Pensacola, FL in March 2006 for final preparations for sinking under a Navy contract. A team of Navy personnel accomplished the sinking of the ship on 17 May 2006, supported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Escambia County Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Pensacola Police Department, and several sheriff departments of Escambia County and surrounding counties. A Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Panama City, FL detonated C-4 explosive charges of approximately 500 total pounds (230 kg) net explosive weight, strategically placed on 22 sea connection pipes in various machinery spaces. Thirty seven minutes after detonation, the ship sank stern first in of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

The ship lies upright, as they hoped it would. The flight deck currently lies at a depth of , and its island rises to . The island structure is accessible to recreational divers, but the flight deck is beyond recreational diving range.

In popular culture

Oriskany was used in filming the 1954 film Men of the Fighting Lady, starring Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon and Keenan Wynn.

Oriskany was also used for the 1955 Paramount Pictures film The Bridges at Toko-Ri, adapted from the James Michener novel, as the fictional carrier USS Savo Island. The movie starred Grace Kelly and William Holden as a veteran pilot of World War II, who is called to serve again when the conflict in Korea escalates, taking him away from his wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly), two young children and a successful law practice. In the film, Oriskany 's hull number is clearly visible in many scenes throughout the movie.

Oriskany was also the ship described in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979) where John Mitchell, an F2H Banshee pilot, crashes his fighter into the "spud locker" of the ship. Mitchell was a pilot together with Alan B. Shepard in the night interceptor squadron VF-193 Ghost Riders.

The 2006 Discovery Channel feature Sinking of an Aircraft Carrier documented the environmental preparation and sinking of the Oriskany.

United States Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who served on the ship during the Vietnam War, called her a "brave ship" and voiced his hopes of diving down to the wreck one day to revisit his old quarters.

The New York Times Web video Diving the U.S.S. Oriskany explored the Oriskany two years after its sinking.

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