It’s been 10 years since the Navy decommissioned the USS John F. Kennedy and left Mayport Naval Station without an aircraft carrier for the first time in years.
Now it looks like it’s facing the same fate as the Kennedy’s predecessor, the USS Saratoga, headed for a scrapyard instead of being turned into a museum to preserve its historical significance.
The Navy recently removed the Kennedy from the list of ships earmarked for donation despite efforts in New England to display the vessel permanently.
But the same group that tried to turn the Saratoga into a museum is still making a push to change the Navy’s mind, and another group is ready to jump in if they don’t’ succeed.
“It’s not unusual for ships to move in and out of donation status as long as there is a viable option in place,” said Frank Lennon, president of the USS John F. Kennedy Project in Rhode Island. “Dismantling and scrapping a ship is a very involved process.”
He said usually when one door closes, another opens. But because the Kennedy is the last conventionally powered aircraft carrier available, there won’t be anymore opportunities for a carrier museum if the Navy decides to go through with dismantlement.
Every operational carrier in the fleet is now nuclear powered, which means they will have to be gutted once they are decommissioned to remove the nuclear reactors. Once that happens there’s no chance of salvaging the vessel to be used as a museum, Lennon said.
Lennon spearheaded the effort to turn the Saratoga into a museum in Rhode Island for about 12 years before that door closed, so then he pivoted his efforts to the Kennedy.
“In 2010 the Navy decided to scrap the Saratoga due to the deterioration of the ship,” Lennon said. “They decided it was not feasible to operate as a public attraction.”
Lennon said the Kennedy has a long way to go before it looks like the Saratoga did when that decision was made.
The Navy decommissioned the Kennedy at Mayport in March 2007, and later that year it was moved to Philadelphia where it’s been ever since.
Former Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter advised the congressional defense committee chairmen in 2008 of his decision to make the Kennedy available for donation, said Colleen O’Rourke, a spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command.
But she said this year that changed.
“The ship was maintained in that status until 2017 when the chief of naval operations notified the secretary of the Navy that CV 67 [USS John F. Kennedy] was being re-designated from donation to dismantlement due to the lack of a viable donation application,” O’Rourke said.
She would not comment on what would have to happen to bring the ship back into donation status and declined to say how long it would take to move forward with dismantlement.
But Lennon’s group isn’t the only contingent interested in preserving the Kennedy.
“They’ve got a lot of power, a lot of good will and a lot of direction, but they lack a site,” said Richard Fitzgerald. “They just don’t have a place to put the JFK.”
Fitzgerald is the leader of a group in Maine that would like to turn the Kennedy into a museum in Portland Harbor. He said it’s a relevant location because it’s the only place the carrier visited on two separate occasions — in 1987 and 1989 — and it played a significant role in World War II when hundreds of ships spent time in the harbor.
Both the Maine and Rhode Island groups made their cases for the Kennedy when it was originally offered as a possible museum, Fitzgerald said, but the Rhode Island group had a much bigger head start because members had worked so hard pursuing the Saratoga.
“We could see the writing on the wall that we were stuck without being able to do what we wanted to do,” Fitzgerald said.
So they agreed to yield to the Rhode Island group to give them a chance to finish what they started.
“They had the lead,” Fitzgerald said. “They had been working on it for 12 years, but when it’s our turn we will be able to take it over.”
Bob Haner is the head of the Kennedy’s crew association, and he’s worked with both Lennon and Fitzgerald over the years.
Both groups have backing from their local governments, but they said the ship’s former commanding officers have a lot more pull with the Navy.
“The bottom line with us in the crew association is we want to save our ship,” Haner said. “Whether it’s in Rhode Island or in Portland, Maine, we just want to save the ship no matter where it’s at.”
He said his concern is that the Navy made an agreement in 2011 when Maine backed out that if the Rhode Island group could not come up with a viable plan, the Navy would reopen the bidding process.
“We just have to see if the Navy is willing to live up to that commitment,” Haner said.
He said if the Navy opens the sweepstakes back up again, any city is welcome to make a presentation — including Jacksonville, where the destroyer USS Adams is set to arrive next year for a museum.
The difference in size between the Adams and Kennedy means it would take a lot more money and a lot more space to bring the larger ship to Jacksonville, Haner said, but anything is possible given the right financial backing.
“Saving a ship is a hard process, it costs a lot of money and you really need a lot of big money people to get anything done,” Haner said.
He said he’s gotten a lot of calls from former crew members since the Navy changed the ship’s designation asking what they can do to stop the dismantlement process. Haner said his message to crew members is to be patient.
The holiday season is a tough time to get answers from Navy officials, he said, so he’s waiting to hear more about the ship’s status before he can advise crew members further.
“I’ve had a lot of my JFK sailors asking me if they should write their congressmen, but I’ve been telling them let’s see where the Navy stands before we do anything,” Haner said.
Lennon said he won’t stop fighting to turn the ship into a museum until the day it is towed to the scrapyard.
He said he isn’t backing away from the fact that his group is struggling to find a berthing location in Rhode Island that will be able to accommodate a carrier museum. Without getting into specifics, he said there are serious negotiations to pin down a place place to dock the ship.
Once that deal is done, he said, the Navy will have no choice but to move the ship back into donation status. But it will take anywhere from $20 million to $60 million to complete the project no matter where it goes.
Haner and Fitzgerald agreed that the Navy is still a long way away from actually scrapping the ship, and they will both step in long before that happens.
“The fat lady hasn’t sung,” Haner said. “She’s not even in the building warming up yet.”
But for now the Kennedy is in Philadelphia, and it’s not among the ships the Navy is looking to donate.
BIG SHIP, BIG HISTORY
Displacement: 60,728 tons
Length: 1,052 feet overall, 990 feet at waterline
Beam: 252 feet, 130 feet at waterline
Height: 192 feet from top of the mast to the waterline
Operational draft: 36-37 feet
Commissioned: September 1968
Decommissioned: March 2007
Source: U.S. Navy/USS John F. Kennedy Project
Source: Jacksonville. 29 December 2017