The Independence was 120 miles out through darkness and rain squalls which began when the plane left the drab coastline and ended when the plane flew out of towering clouds and into the bright sun over the carrier, which was moving at 16 knots in 240 feet of light green water.
The gray, angle-decked carrier went into a turn, walking its 80,000 tons through water and into the wind. The fighter planes, darts in the sky overhead, need a 32-knot wind blowing at them when they come onto the deck, their noses pointing to the sky, for landings. Two destroyers, white fountains of water at their bows, followed in file in the wake of the Independence. It was, from the window of a plane coming in to land, the picture of the Navy that has been hanging on the sidewalk outside post offices for twenty-five years.
The Independence pulled out of Norfolk, Virginia, last May with 4500 men and 90 planes aboard. Now, 11,000 miles away, it moves through the South China Sea as a reminder of things that are gone.
The Independence was put together at the foot of Sands Street in Brooklyn from 1955 to 1958. At that time it was common to say that Brooklyn was the only place of its size in the nation that did not have a daily newspaper, a railroad station, and a left fielder. Now Brooklyn does not have a Navy yard either. The men who built the Independence have moved to Philadelphia and Boston. And the way of life which the carrier represents seems to be gone too. The Independence is a ship that was built to fight in a war that could be seen and found and somehow understood and then fought to a conclusion. Here in the summer and fall of 1965, the Independence is part of a grimy little thing where six men coming out of the water in a rice paddy somewhere constitute an attack.
The Independence sends long-nosed, exciting planes called F-4B Phantoms exploding off its deck. The planes race away at 1500 miles an hour and bomb little bridges we would spit at in ordinary war. The Independence sends planes known as Skyhawks roaring into the night. They dive from 15,000 feet to fire rockets into fields where a handful of men in black shirts and pants may or may not be hiding. There are no enemy carriers for the Independence to destroy, no big factories as we know them, no major bases for its planes to dive from the sky at. There are only clusters of nothing in Viet Nam.
The drip of Asian war comes down on the Independence. The carrier has lost four planes. Two of its pilots are prisoners in North Viet Nam. Anti-aircraft fire, modern anti-aircraft fire, high and accurate and heavy, meets the planes over North Viet Nam. When the planes return to hit the gun emplacements, they cannot find them. Or the fire is so heavy it isn’t worth the price to go in. Surface-to-air missiles come up from the ground at them. At night, when the rocket boosters look like streetlights, the missiles can be evaded. But in the daytime the missiles are impossible to see. When sites finally are spotted and planes come back to hit them, the planes find only empty ground.
The Independence drips down on the Viet Cong too. The carrier planes fly thirteen hours a day, bombing and rocketing, and in North Viet Nam the war is different from what the people there were told it would be. In the South the Viet Cong must remain in small groups and must always be moving and digging holes and getting into them. They are afraid to light fires much of the time. Apparently, malaria sweeps through them. Everybody expected them to come like water under a door in July and August. The jet attacks prevented this. But it all is small. This is a war where you spend a million dollars to fight ten people.
So here is the Independence, magnificent and incongruous, lying off the coast of Viet Nam for forty days at a time. The aircraft carrier moves through the light green water as the only way of first-class living and fighting there is.
The captain, John E. Kennedy, was sitting in a high-backed leather chair on the left side of the nearly silent glass-enclosed bridge of the ship. Kennedy was in sunglasses, a blue baseball cap on his square face. His khakis were unwrinkled. He smoked a cigar and had a mug of coffee in front of him.
He asked quietly for another mug and a Marine who had on a white belt with a wide, highly polished brass buckle brought the mug over. A young sailor in denim work clothes ran a waxing machine over the green tiled floor.
Three sailors in white stood in the middle of the bridge, one of them turning the brass wheel of the helm when ordered. Officers in pressed khakis stood at the windows and spoke into intercoms.
A small television receiver was in front of Kennedy. “It shows landings live and then it plays them back on tape,” he said. “It cuts out a lot of arguments about whether the pilot landed right or not. See those little registers on the top of the screen? They show the plane’s speed while it is landing. Now if a pilot starts arguing, they just play back the tape for him. We’ve made a business out of this. Take a look at the planes. Go on any carrier and you won’t see paintings of naked girls and nicknames and the like on the planes. That’s all gone. The whole attitude here is that it’s a business.”
An Admiral, James Reedy, a thickset man with gray in his crew-cut hair, was a flight down, sitting in a paneled room that had tan carpeting, easy chairs, and a long brown walnut table with blue chairs set at it. The room was set up for President Kennedy, who once used it for a week. Reedy is with the Seventh Fleet. He is in charge of carriers.
“We’ve lost planes,” Reedy said, “too many planes. The anti-aircraft fire can get pretty damn good. And the North Vietnamese are learning how to handle electronics pretty well. Their missiles ride a radar beam to the plane. You’ve got to read their radar. Then we had one operation accident right on this ship. An officer whose career I’ve followed since he was on the Princeton with me. He came in to land and the ship got out of control and he and the copilot went over the side. We got the bodies. That’s all. I watched it right in here on television. I just had to sit here and watch them go right over the side on me. Men I knew.”
Through the endless hallways of the carrier, men were going to the dentist, going for religious instruction, going into a carpeted library, or they could be found in paneled sitting rooms, watching the movie Cleopatra on a television screen. A lieutenant, Louis Viscomi, who was last seen tending bar in a place called Harvey’s in Broad Channel, Long Island, was standing in front of the legal office talking to a seaman who is in trouble with finance companies. The finance companies have been writing the captain of the Independence about the sailor. Viscomi, whose bartending got him a law degree, helps advise the sailors.
“Only a rat bastard would try and collect money off of you when you’re away to a war,” the sailor was saying.
“Why don’t we sit down and go over the thing? It’s always easier to pay,” Viscomi said.
The sailor said a very bad word.
Out on the deck, crews in yellow, brown, blue, green, and red sweatshirts clustered around the black-nosed jet planes. All the crew workers had cuts and scars on their hands. The blast from the jets knocks people off their feet and onto the flight deck, which is covered with a rough cement-like coating to prevent skidding.
The carrier has three catapults. The planes were wheeled onto the catapult tracks. The first one, a Phantom, sucked in air through two nostrils on its sides and burned it out the back in a stream of fire.
The head of the crew bent down and touched a button. With a crash and with steam billowing up from the catapult tracks and with red flames coming out of the jet’s afterburners, the plane disappeared down the deck and into the air. Then they started to go from all sides. In seven minutes, the carrier had fifteen planes out in the sky. As the last one was off, the crew turned around and the first plane of an incoming group approached the deck and dropped down onto it, and its hook caught the third of four cables stretched across the deck. The cable pulled the plane to a stop.
Bright jerseys dove under the plane and got the cable off the hook. The plane taxied to the front of the deck as another one landed. When the first plane stopped, the pilot got out and took off his helmet and ran a hand through his wet hair. We walked to a doorway and went downstairs for a cup of coffee in a dining room where white-jacketed Filipino waiters served.
Off in a corner, a bald man in a white shirt and brown slacks sat over coffee. His name is Ellis Bolton. He is a technical representative of North American Aviation. There are twenty others like him on the ship. If something goes wrong with one of his company’s planes, he goes twenty-four hours and more with the project until he likes what he sees. They play a whole game on the Independence.
Downstairs, red lights in the dimness of the hangar deck showed white 1000-pound bombs hanging in ceiling racks. Rock-and-roll music screamed out of loudspeakers in the twenty-four-hour cafeterias where non-officers eat whenever they want. Music from hi-fi sets ran through the cubicles where the men sleep in three-decked cots, the gray nozzle of an air-conditioner sticking out over the cot on top. Down another corridor, in a room with high-backed leather chairs, Robert Gormley, a tall, balding man, stood at a lectern and spoke to the pilots in his squadron. They sat in the chairs and drank root beer out of cans. Gormley is a commander. The Navy sent him to Harvard for a year of political-science studies. They seem to have everything handled here. The Independence can stay out in the ocean and take care of itself for months.
Its people know what to do. Its planes can knock out a city. But there are no cities to knock out in Viet Nam. There are only these little people moving across empty land who live on cold rice which they carry in a plastic bag. The aircraft carrier does the only job that can be done against them right now. But it is not the kind of war they were thinking of in Brooklyn when they came to work every morning to build the Independence.