M.C. Farrington, Hampton Roads Naval Museum
Note: This blog is also featured on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s blogspot page.
There have been a number of new aircraft carriers which bear the names of their predecessors. Names such as Yorktown (CV 5 & CV 10), Hornet (CV 8 & CV 12), Lexington (CV 2 & CV 16), Wasp (CV 7 & CV 18) and Enterprise (CV 6 & CVN 65). These were vessels named to commemorate great American victories or storied vessels of the past. As time has gone on, the names of presidents and other notable figures in naval history have been added to the list of new American flattops joining the fleet. However, no president’s name has been carried forward from an old carrier to a new one until now.
On December 7, 2019, at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, the United States Navy christened a new carrier with the name of a president from a previous carrier for the very first time. Moreover, in what might be another first, the new carrier will be christened by the same person who christened the old one at the same shipyard over 52 years ago. The selection of nine-year-old Caroline Kennedy as the carrier’s sponsor in May 1967 had as much to do with naval custom as it had to do with tragedy.
As a lieutenant junior grade during World War II, her father, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, fought bravely in the Pacific, sustaining serious injuries after the PT boat under his command was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943. After his meteoric rise after the war as a congressman and, later, senator from the state of Massachusetts, he edged out Vice President (and fellow former naval officer), Richard Nixon for the presidency in November 1960. After a tumultuous tenure as president, during which he authorized naval assets to secretly support Cuban exiles attempting to invade and overthrow the Communist government of Cuba, and later ordered a naval quarantine of the island, Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, leaving Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (yet another former naval officer) as commander in chief.
Kennedy was unquestionably not afraid to put the Navy he led into harm’s way, but he was also a strong advocate of the service. After Kennedy’s death, President Johnson led the effort to name a modified Kitty Hawk-class carrier, authorized for construction during his predecessor’s administration, for the fallen leader. The keel for USS John F. Kennedy (CVA 67) was laid on October 22, 1964.
As a matter of custom, as the carrier was nearing completion, a significant member of President Kennedy’s family would be invited to christen the vessel.
In February 1967, Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze sent Jacqueline Kennedy an invitation to sponsor the new carrier. “Traditionally, a lady sponsors only one Navy ship; however, there have been exceptions to this custom,” wrote Nitze. “Though you christened the Polaris submarine, USS Lafayette, I am sure that I express the sentiment of the entire Navy in urging you to christen the new carrier. Should you prefer, your daughter, Caroline, may be designated.”
Indeed, Jacqueline Kennedy had christened USS Lafayette (SSBN 616) at General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, May 8, 1962. Less than two years later, however, her life, and the course of the nation’s history, had been irrevocably changed by the assassination of her husband. That tragic change impacted the way she felt towards attending another such event.
In an early draft of the response Mrs. Kennedy sent Secretary Nitze, she wrote, “That type of thing [the christening], remembering my husband, is very difficult for me. “Nevertheless, she then assured Nitze that someone from President Kennedy’s family would attend the christening.
Overcoming her grief, Mrs. Kennedy decided upon having her daughter Caroline sponsor the ship, and on the morning of May 27, 1967, she accompanied the little girl, her son John F. Kennedy Jr., and approximately 15 immediate family members, to the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock company.
Caroline Kennedy was hardly the first in her family to christen a ship at the mammoth shipyard on the James River. Her paternal grandmother Rose Kennedy had sponsored the Cimarron-class fleet oiler SS Esso Richmond at Newport News Shipbuilding in September 1939 (which was commissioned USS Kaskaskia (AO 27) the following year). Her aunt Patricia Kennedy had sponsored the President Jackson-class attack transport President Polk (AP 103) in June 1941. Another aunt, Ethel Kennedy (wife of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) had sponsored the Ethan Allen-class ballistic missile submarine John Marshall (SSBN 611) in May 1961.
In a ceremony timed down to the second, three warning whistles were to sound; the first a siren scheduled for 12:25 pm, with a whistle 30 seconds afterward, and another 20 seconds later. With each siren or whistle blast, one of JFK’s three initials would appear in lights on a giant board affixed to the bow. Caroline was scheduled to smash the bottle against the bow precisely on the third whistle blast scheduled for 12:26.
“Caroline, 9, stood in front of the bow of the mammoth attack aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy like a left-handed little leaguer at home plate,” wrote Virginian-Pilot reporter Shirley Bolinaga, who was among the throngs of local and national news media to cover the event.
The clock photographed behind the participants on the platform indicates that the event was ahead of schedule, with Caroline taking her first swing at 12:09 and 50 seconds, and, unless a video of the event accessible online has been edited incorrectly, she attempted to break the bottle after the second blast.
“She held the bottle of Great Western champagne like a baseball bat and swung from the shoulder,” wrote Bolinaga. “It hit with a clunk but it didn’t break.” After the bottle bounced off an angular rail affixed to the bow, Caroline tried again, striking home three seconds after the first attempt, sending bubbly in all directions, and sending the great ship into the James River.
“On the second try, the bottle, beribboned with red, white, and blue, shattered. Its bubbly contents splashed all over Caroline’s aqua and white dress and red shoes, and splattered on her mother as Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy clapped her gloved hands together in front of her face,” wrote Bolinaga. “The mother and her children watched as the 61,450-ton ship was floated from Shipway 11 into the James River.”
After her commissioning on September 7, 1968, USS John. F. Kennedy, the Navy’s last conventionally powered carrier, plunged headlong into the Cold War that dominated foreign policy during her namesake’s administration, and those of the next four presidential administrations. Caroline Kennedy visited the ship at least once more during its active service, the first time when the carrier visited Boston in 1970.
The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 deprived Kennedy of a scheduled wartime deployment to Southeast Asia, and a place in the history of the Vietnam War. However, the carrier participated in exercises and operations through war and peace, the last being during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with frequent visits and yard periods in Hampton Roads in between, until her decommissioning in 2007.
Long after CV 67 was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 2009, Caroline Kennedy was very much in active government service, having been appointed as ambassador to Japan by President Barack Obama, a post she held from 2013 to 2017.
Although, sadly, her mother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who died of cancer in 1994, and her brother John F. Kennedy Jr., who died while flying his plane to Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, will not be there to witness it, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy will once again visit Hampton Roads and take her place in commissioning a vessel that will represent her family, her father, and the nation he led, far into the future.
“Christened by the hand of a child,” said Secretary of Defense Robert. S. McNamara in his remarks on the day of the original John F. Kennedy‘s commissioning over 52 years ago, “it will begin an odyssey whose final landfall we cannot clearly foretell.”
* Two American aircraft carriers were named for aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley: USS Langley (CV 1), converted from the collier Jupiter at Norfolk Navy Yard between 1920-22, and USS Langley (CVL 27), an Independence-class light carrier, commissioned in 1943. USS Wright (CVL 49) was another Independence-class carrier constructed during World War II, but she was named for both brothers, whereas the previous USS Wright (AZ 1/AV 1), which served in several different aviation support roles after its commissioning in 1921, was only named for Orville Wright.