The budget axe claimed its latest victim Saturday when the USS Virginia, a Norfolk-based nuclear guided missile cruiser, was deactivated in a ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, who will himself soon leave the Navy, was guest speaker and one of many military and civilian dignitaries attending the event.
The ship, with fewer years of naval service than many in attendance, looked perfect as it sat berthed alongside pier 11. And it was Kelso who perhaps best voiced the feelings of the large crowd that had faced bitterly cold winds to attend the ceremony.
"Saying goodbye to any warship is always bittersweet. But if you viewed this ceremony from only a short distance away," said Kelso, " you might think you were viewing a commissioning ceremony and not a deactivation."
Kelso's comment sounded much like one made by the man who introduced him, Adm Henry H. Mauz, commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet.
"I've been present at a lot of decommissionings, but they were of older ships - ships whose time it was to go," said Mauz. "But there is alot of fight and life in this ship."
Kelso told the crowd that seeing young ships leave the fleet may be difficult, but with new missions and objectives, the Navy's needs are quite different than they were when Virginia joined the fleet during the height of the Cold War.
"Some say they are victims of their own success," said Kelso, "but I say they are victors of their own success. Virginia is retiring undefeated."
Michael Noble, a plankowner and Virginia's second Navigator, echoed Kelso's words when he told Soundings "It's emotionally tough to see this." Now an investment consultant in Huntsville, Ala., Noble made the drive to Norfolk with his family for the weekend. In December, he chartered a helicopter to videotape the ship's last entry into port.
Commissioned as the first of four of its own class of heavily armed nuclear cruisers on September 11, 1976, the Virginia was due for nuclear refueling this year. In fact, its replacement core had already been bought and paid for. But faced with a shrinking budget and the move towards gas-turbine-powered Aegis system cruisers, the Navy chose to deactivate the ship. The USS Texas (CGN-39), the second ship in the class, was decommissioned last year.
During her active life, Virginia made nine deployments, including five to the Mediterranean, three to the Caribbean, and one to the Indian Ocean. She played a naval gunfire support role during conflicts in Beruit, Lebanon, and launched two Tomahawk missiles into northern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
The Virginia's most recent success was a three-month drug counterdiction cruise that ended last December. During the cruise, the ship helped confiscate more than 10,000 pounds of cocaine and 41,200 pounds of marijuana. As further proof of her operational readiness, Virginia didn't suffer a single equipment casualty during the deployment.
The cruiser was towed to Norfolk Naval Shipyard Tuesday to begin the year-long defueling process. Because that process, which requires a long shipyard period, interferes with a traditional decommissioning ceremony, Saturday's deactivation ceremony served to commemorate the ship's departure from the operational fleet. Deactivation ceremonies are a relatively new tradition, started by nuclear submariners and usually limited to nuclear powered vessels.
Many of Virginia's crew will report to new commands during the coming year, while a small number will remain with the ship until preparations for actual decommissioning are completed.
Among those in attendance were many members of Virginia's original crew. The most visible of the "plankowners" was the current commanding officer, Capt. Ralph H. Lipfert.
Lipfert was the engineering officer under then-CO Capt. George W. Davis, Jr, when Virginia was commissioned. Davis, who attained flag rank before retiring, and the ship's four other former commanding officers were also in attendence.
After the ceremony, as most attendees scurried either for the warmth of the reception at the Breezy Point Officer's Club or for one last tour of the ship, one man stood out among the few left on the pier. It was Davis, Virginia's first skipper.
"I'd like to say this is bittersweet," said Davis, "but there's no sweetness involved."
Asked what his fondest memory of the ship was, he just smiled and said there were too many. Then he pointed at the Captain's Gig, specifically the shining brass propeller, and said, "seeing that reminds me of one."
His smile grew a little broader.