By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
On May 26, 2018, I had the opportunity to see and touch what many consider to be the “Holy Grail” of artifacts associated with U.S. naval history; the stern plate of the WWII aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) which is in the care of the Township of River Vale, New Jersey. The occasion was a Memorial Day weekend commemoration in River Vale of the 80th anniversary of the commissioning of the Enterprise, the impending 76th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Midway, and to remember and honor all those who made the ultimate sacrifice aboard that ship, and in all the armed services in all of our nation’s wars.
USS Enterprise served with distinction throughout the entirety of World War II, earning 20 battle stars (for participating in 20 major battles,) more than any other ship, as well as a Presidential Unit Citation and Navy Unit Commendation. Her Sailors and the pilots and air crewmen of her air group earned numerous Navy Crosses and other medals for valor in combat. In the early days of the war, the great majority of these men were volunteers, who had served during a time of extreme austerity and neglect of military capability between World War I and World War II. Yet, none of them shirked their duty, and many of them paid the ultimate price on behalf of a nation that was not ready for war, in order to buy the time necessary to build the modern ships and aircraft necessary to achieve ultimate victory. Enterprise served at the darkest times of the war in the Pacific. At times she was the only operational U.S. aircraft carrier during a period where the Imperial Japanese Navy seemed invincible. Her Air Group conducted the critical dive-bombing attack at the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, which changed the course of the entire war, and arguably the course of world history. The battle-scarred Enterprise just missed the surrender ceremony at Tokyo Bay because she had been grievously damaged by a Japanese kamikaze suicide hit several months earlier.
If any ship that served in World War II deserved to be preserved as a memorial to the valor and sacrifice of those Navy personnel who served in that war, it was the USS Enterprise. However, despite a nationwide effort to save her, which included many thousands of school children donating their nickels and dimes, the U.S. Navy decided to scrap her anyway. Her dismantlement was completed in 1960. The Navy saved the ship’s bell (which is at the U.S. Naval Academy,) one of her anchors (which is Leutze Park on the Washington Navy Yard,) the builders commissioning plaque (which is in the National Museum of the United States Navy,) and a few other minor pieces (some of which served aboard the first nuclear powered air craft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65.) However, as treasured as these artifacts may be, bells, anchors, and plaques look alike. There is nothing that has the name Enterprise emblazoned for immortality, except for the stern plate in River Vale, which the Navy did not have the foresight to save. (Nowadays, the Naval History and Heritage Command sends a team aboard ships being decommissioned to save any artifacts of enduring historic value, including the stern plate.)
The person who did have the sense of history and foresight to save the stern plate was Mr. W. Henry Hoffman, who supervised the scrapping operation of Enterprise. Hoffman was a German immigrant who had served in the Kaiser’s navy during World War I and then the Norwegian Merchant Marine. Hoffman came to America and developed a deep love for his adopted nation and he took it upon himself to save the stern plate and a number of other artifacts and brought them to his home town of River Vale. After Hoffman died in 1965, three bulkheads that had the battle record of Enterprise painted on them disappeared and have never been found. The stern plate wound up for many years just outside the center field fence of the local Little League baseball field, where anyone who hit the stern plate won a free hot dog.
In the late 1990’s, the Township of River Vale invested in conserving the stern plate, which had begun to seriously rust and on Oct. 2, 2000, placed it in a veteran’s memorial park more dignified and fitting for this unique, historic artifact. Since then, River Vale has held commemorations that included veterans of CV 6, although sadly, due to advancing years, none were able to attend this year’s commemoration. Over the years, a number of those veterans donated more artifacts which are now displayed with great care by the River Vale Public Library under the direction of Ms. Ann McCarthy. A number of the crew of Enterprise (CVN 65) were in attendance this year; they are equally proud of their ship, which served with distinction for over 50 years from 1961 to 2012, but recognize the legacy bequeathed by the heroic record of CV 6. In recognition of the importance of this legacy, then Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, announced during the inactivation ceremony of CVN 65, that the Ford-class aircraft carrier CVN 80, expected to be commissioned around 2027, would be named Enterprise.
So, on behalf of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Township of River Vale, New Jersey for the care they have taken to preserve the stern plate of USS Enterprise (CV 6) and to keep it in a dignified setting.