With the carrier John F. Kennedy in the background, a sailor salutes during the call to colors shortly before the ship's decommissioning ceremony March 23 at Naval Station Mayport, Fla. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
Rear Adm. (ret.) Earl P. Yates, the first commanding officer of the carrier John F. Kennedy, on March 23, autographs a copy of the first cruise book from the ship's first deployment. Yates was talking to former Bill Freitas of Santa Maria, Calif., who was a young aviation ordnanceman on the first cruise. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
Scores of present day and former Kennedy sailors and their families gather March 23 to witness the decommissioning ceremony of the carrier John F. Kennedy at Naval Station Mayport, Fla. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
Commanding Officer of the USS John F. Kennedy Capt. Todd Zecchin salutes as he is piped over the side for the final time moments after the ship was decommissioned in a ceremony at Mayport Naval Station, Fla. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
NAVAL STATION MAYPORT, Fla. And then she was gone.
After nearly 39 years of service, the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy was decommissioned the morning of March 23 at Naval Station Mayport.
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"In my judgment, the legacy of this ship is the role she played in winning the Cold War," said Adm. John B. Nathman, commander of the Navy's Fleet Forces Command and himself a naval aviator. "This ship sent a powerful message to the Soviet Union and made them quit ... You have served with honor and distinction, and I thank you."
Nathman recounted how the ship had also fought in Lebanon in 1983 and was the first aircraft carrier to arrive in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield and stayed to play a major part in Desert Storm.
Its final combat cruise took JFK again to the Persian Gulf, where its aircraft flew strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan and finished up supporting the Marines during their November 2004 fight against insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq.
But the Kennedy will live on not only in the hearts and minds of former skippers and crew, but its in-port cabin, designed by Jacqueline Kennedy and outfitted by her with Kennedy family artifacts.
"It's a one-of-a-kind captain's in-port cabin," said retired Vice Adm. Gerry Hoewing, a former Kennedy skipper who now heads the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation in Pensacola, Fla. "We have just gotten the word that we will be preserving that as an exhibit at the museum in Pensacola."
For most of the crew, past and present, who showed up for the ceremony, the event was a farewell to a ship that played an important part in their lives.
"This is it, and I wouldn't have missed this day for the world," said Kent Vermeer, who was a lowly airman apprentice on JFK's commissioning day, Sept. 6, 1968.
He was just 18, one of the youngest members of the crew, when he was called upon to help cut the commissioning cake, he said.
"I still have that plate, autographed by Jackie, Ted and all the Kennedys," he told Rear Adm. (ret.) Earl P. Yates, now in his late 80s, who was the ship's first skipper.
"Wow, how time has flown," Yates told members of his commissioning crew. "You fellas were just kids back then."
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