Big O’s history both colorful and bloody

The “Big O” is going back to sea.

The USS Oriskany, an 888-foot aircraft carrier that fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and survived efforts to sell her for scrap or turn her into a tourist attraction in Tokyo while she spent over 15 years in the mothball fleet in Bremerton, will be scuttled in the Gulf of Mexico 25 miles off Pensacola to become an artificial reef.

She will be the largest ship ever purposely sunk as a reef.

The Navy picked Pensacola over sites proposed by Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina because of the city’s close ties to naval aviation. Pensacola was the Navy’s first air station when it was established 90 years ago.

World War II was over when the Essex-class carrier named after a Revolutionary War battle at Oriskany, N.Y., was launched in October, 1945, at the New York Naval Shipyard. She wasn’t even commissioned until 1950, in time for the Korean War.

In 1966, while she was in the Far East, she rescued a Hong Kong-registered merchant ship that went aground during a typhoon, saving the 44 crewmen aboard. One month later, a huge fire erupted when ordnance ignited on the hangar deck while she was in the Gulf of Tonkin, killing 44 officers who died of smoke inhalation.

“The Big O” was such a hard-luck ship with so many aviators and aircraft lost in battles as well as the 44 killed in the fire, that she earned a new nickname, “The Bloody O.”

Decommissioned in Bremerton in 1976, the Oriskany didn’t make the news again until 1991, when Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, slipped into the defense appropriations bill the authority to transfer the ship to Japan.

She was to be transformed into a floating “City of America” theme park as part of a $200 million tourist complex in Tokyo’s Yokohama Harbor to help build “a cultural and educational bridge between Japan and the U.S.”

Plans called for an audio-visual tour of American history along the hangar deck, restaurants, exhibition space for traveling art shows from the U.S., a giant screen theater to show a movie about U.S. history and possible use of the old crew quarters for a school and youth hostel.

The deal was for the Oriskany to be sold to a group of Japanese businessmen for the price of scrap metal, about $2 million, in exchange for which they agreed to have an overhaul done in a Portland shipyard for $30 million. Congress OKed it, but the timing was bad.

The 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was also 1991, and outrage was expressed all over America at the idea of seeing one of our fighting ships going to the perpetrator.

“If the Japanese want an aircraft carrier,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., “let them dredge Pearl Harbor.”

“If the Japanese want to bridge the cultural and education gap,” said Mrs. Jean Stark of Bremerton, “they could historically inform their people of the true history of World War II. The schoolbooks in Japan have no mention of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.”

The deal fell through. In 1996, the Oriskany was sold again for $1.2 million to be turned into scrap. Somehow that too didn’t happen.

The Oriskany’s new career as a reef for fish and divers was supposed to have begun this year, but environmental issues remained to be solved. Her wooden flight deck was removed at Corpus Christi, Texas, from which site she was scheduled to be moved this month to Pensacola.

Explosives will be used to send her to the bottom in June, when she will become part of a new naval history.

“We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.” — The Ancient Mariner.

Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA 98340.

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