WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG 52 SEAPOWER / DECEMBER 2015
Ahalf century ago, the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise, commanded by CAPT James L. Holloway III, arrived off South Vietnam at a location in the Gulf
of Tonkin designated as Dixie Station to join the fight
against Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
On the flight deck, and down below in its hangar, were
the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW- 9), a mixture
of combat aircraft embarked to take advantage of the additional capacity the nuclear-powered flat-top provided. By
not having to maintain fuel bunkers for conventional oilfired boilers, Enterprise had a 90 percent greater aviation
fuel capacity and a 50 percent larger ordnance capacity
than its conventionally powered sister super carriers.
Consequently, Enterprise could support an additional
squadron of A-4C attack aircraft. Overall, the Enterprise
air complement included a squadron of RA-5C Vigilante
reconnaissance aircraft; four squadrons of A-4Cs; two
squadrons of F-4B Phantom II fighters; a detachment of
A-3B Skywarrior tankers; a detachment of E-1B Tracer airborne early-warning aircraft; and a detachment of UH-2A
At 0720 local time on Dec. 2, 1965, escorted by nuclear-powered missile destroyer Bainbridge and conventionally
powered destroyers Barry and Samuel B. Roberts,
Enterprise became the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in
combat operations when it launched an initial strike consisting of a mix of 21 Phantoms and Skyhawks. Led by
CDR Sheldon Schwartz and his Radar Intercept Officer
LTJG George Moore, the formation attacked enemy positions around Bien Hoa in South Vietnam.
As the day wore on, an additional 104 combat sorties
catapulted off the big deck to attack targets in border
areas throughout the south. The operational pace picked
up. The next day, 131 strike sorties were launched. On
Dec. 11, Enterprise flew off 165 strike sorties.
After supporting allied forces in South Vietnam,
Holloway received orders on Dec. 17 to steam north to
Yankee Station in the northern portion of the Tonkin
Gulf to launch strikes into North Vietnam. Joining Kitty
Hawk and Ticonderoga, Enterprise entered into a 24-hour
staggered combat flight cycle that kept a steady stream of
naval aircraft over the airspace of North Vietnam.
Following rest and relaxation at Subic Bay in the
Philippines and Hong Kong, Enterprise returned to the
Tonkin Gulf in February and re-engaged, with strike
sorties targeting bridges, roads, depots, railways and
missile sites. After another visit to Subic Bay, Enterprise
returned to the waters off Vietnam in March during the
height of the monsoon season.
With a low cloud ceiling, the Skyhawks were particularly vulnerable, and five of the delta-wing planes succumbed to anti-aircraft fire. On March 20, enemy fire damaged a Phantom. Writing for the Big E Family Newsletter,
Holloway detailed the dramatic rescue of a Phantom pilot
who ejected just off the coast. A race ensued to get to him
and a rescue helicopter reached him after having to fight
off an approaching enemy boat. Unfortunately, the
Phantom’s Radar Intercept Officer fell into enemy hands.
At the end of April, Enterprise recorded the launch
of its 10,000th strike sortie. Combat operations continued until June 5, 1966, when the big ship turned
homeward for a trans-Pacific crossing to its new homeport of Alameda, Calif.
Over the previous six months, “Big E” spent 130 days
on the line, launching 13,020 combat sorties that delivered 8,966 tons of ordnance. CVW- 9 lost 20 aircraft —
80 percent of those to enemy fire. From those aircraft, 11
were killed, seven were captured and 11 were recovered.
The ship’s superb performance earned it the Battle
Efficiency “E” Award for the best carrier in the Pacific
Fleet. In sum, Enterprise demonstrated the advantages of
nuclear propulsion that would be critically important in
the ongoing debate for future carrier construction.
When Enterprise steamed under the Golden Gate
Bridge on June 21, 1966, it was treated to the biggest
homecoming a Navy ship had seen since World War II.
Big E Sailors were embraced by the Bay Area population.
Sadly, future ships returning home from Southeast Asia
would not be so warmly welcomed because of changing
national attitudes about the war. ;
Sources: Dave McKay, USS Enterprise CVA(N)/CVN-65: The
World’s First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier, Willsonscott
Publishing, Christchurch, New Zealand (2013); ADM James L.
Holloway III, Aircraft Carriers at War; A Personal Retrospective
of Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet Confrontation, Naval
Institute Press, Annapolis (2007); Dictionary of American Naval
Fighting Ships, Naval History and Heritage Command website,
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
Big E Brought Nuclear-Powered
Ships into Combat Operations
By DAVID F. WINKLER