By Karen Zautyk
In 1955, the USS Forrestal was commissioned as America’s first post-World War II aircraft carrier — a 1,067-foot “supercarrier.” For nearly four decades, it sailed the seas, serving this nation in peace and in war — and surviving a disastrous 1967 accident in which 134 crewmen died and more than 160 were injured.
In 1993, it was decommissioned and put in “storage,” first at Newport, R.I., and then at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
And where is this historic vessel now? Being torn asunder and turned into scrap metal in Brownsville, Texas.
The Pentagon had failed to find a buyer for the carrier. It couldn’t even donate the Forrestal as a memorial or a museum, since, according to published reports, no suitable applicants ever came forward.
So, in October of last year, the government made a deal with the Texas scrapyard. The U.S. paid a penny to have this ship — which cost an estimated $217 million (about $2 billion in 2014 dollars) to build — towed away and demolished.
You read that correctly: The government didn’t sell it for 1 cent, which would have been bad enough; it PAID a cent to get rid of it.
At 5 a.m. this Feb. 4, the Forrestal — named for James Forrestal, former Secretary of the Navy and this country’s first Secretary of Defense — began its final voyage, to be towed by tugboats down the Delaware River and along the Atlantic Coast and across the Gulf of Mexico to meet its final fate in the Lone Star State. Standing in the frigid cold and pre-dawn darkness on the Philadelphia docks that morning was a Nutley resident, Allen Polixa, a Navy veteran who had served aboard the Forrestal from 1980 to ‘82. He had driven to Philly with his wife, Erlinda, simply to say goodbye.
Polixa, 54, told us that he and another Forrestal vet, Philadelphian Jimmie Stewart, who served on the ship from 1960 to ‘62, were the only two former crew members there on the pier to bid farewell. However, later, as the Forrestal was being towed down the Delaware, there were people standing along the riverbanks to witness the departure.
After the carrier arrived in Texas later in the month, Polixa was there, too. “I had no plans to go to Texas,” he said, “but my wife said, ‘Go. It’s only a one-time thing.’” So he went — this time solo and by plane. Polixa noted that, unlike Philly, in Brownsville there were formal farewell ceremonies, private and public. And according to local news reports, as the ship was towed past South Padre Island on Feb. 18, thousands of people were lining the jettys.
Among the events was a memorial service sponsored by the USS Forrestal Association, which, if you are interested, has a comprehensive website, http://www.uss-forrestal.com.
The carrier, with its crew of 5,000 and complement of 80 aircraft, had a long and noble service career, but in the minds of many it is most remembered for that 1967 tragedy during Vietnam War.
On July 29 of that year, it was engaged in combat operations off the coast of North Vietnam. A rocket from an F-4 jet fighter on the carrier deck was launched accidentally and stuck another fighter plane that was preparing for take-off, a Skyhawk piloted by John McCain, the future U.S. senator.
Fuel from the Skyhawk ignited, the fire spread to other planes and detonated a 1,000- lb. bomb, and chain-reaction explosions followed. Half the ship was ablaze. The result was carnage.
By the following year, the Forrestal had been fully repaired and refitted and was back on active duty, but it did not return to Vietnam.
By the time Polixa was assigned to the Forrestal, it was splitting its time between the Mediterranean and its home port of Jacksonville, Fla.
The Nutley resident recalled one homeward journey across the Atlantic after the crew had been at sea “for two months straight, no liberty visits.” As a reward, the Forrestal captain ordered the carrier stopped in mid-ocean and treated the sailors to a barbecue on “Steel Beach,” the flight deck.
“Usually, there is no alcohol allowed on U.S. Navy ships,” Polixa noted, but for the party, the Navy “had flown in two cans of beer for each sailor.”
Many the crew members were content to sun themselves on the deck that day, but Polixa was among those who took advantage of the opportunity to go swimming in the middle of the sea.
The sailors were allowed to ride the airplane “elevators” downward and then dive in, but they had to scramble back up climbing the cargo nets. And while they were paddling around in the waves, the Forrestal was surrounded by small boats, each carrying a Marine with a gun. “For shark watch,” Polixa explained. “But none showed up.”
Polixa, a native of West Orange, entered the Navy right after graduating from West Orange High School in 1978 and carried on the tradition of his father, Albert, who served in the Navy from ‘57 to ‘59.
“Being in the service was a good time in my life,” Polixa said. “Coming out of high school, I was able to put my life together. It helped me get on track. It gave me a lot of self-discipline, which is good for a young person.”
It also, obviously, gave him a deep affection for his ship — which has now met such a sad fate.