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'Big John' retired from sea duty

Published March 24, 2007


MAYPORT - The first skipper of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy was surrounded Friday by shipmates wanting an autograph, a picture or just a chance to talk about old times.

But for Adm. Earl P. Yates, the ship's captain from 1968 to 1969, the decommissioning of "Big John" after nearly 40 years of service was a little sad.

"I feel like crying," he said.

Yates was among the 19 of 29 former Kennedy captains who attended the ceremony presided over by the final skipper, Capt. Todd Zecchin. The event ended with the lowering of the ship's flag and more than 2,000 sailors in dress blues marching off for the last time.

"What a bittersweet day. It is a glorious breath of life we've filled the ship with," Zecchin told about 7,000 former crew members and military dignitaries gathered at Mayport Naval Station, the carrier's home port for the last 12 years.

The Kennedy looked as if it had just come from the shipyard, its gray paint gleaming and its top encircled by red, white and blue bunting.

The ship was active in both Iraq wars and launched aircraft into hot spots around the globe, including Afghanistan. At 1,050 feet long, it once carried a crew of about 4,600 and 70 combat aircraft. Its decommissioning crew was about 2,800.

Zecchin called the crew "a profile in courage," a reference to President Kennedy's Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage.

No one from the Kennedy family attended the ceremony. They said their good-byes during a port visit to Boston about three weeks ago.

[Last modified March 24, 2007, 01:43:37]

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