Of all the red-letter days marked by the famed ship builders of Newport News, Oct. 3, 1936 has to rank among the reddest.
That's when one of the most successful warships in U.S. history slid down the ways into the James River, just a few years before making "Big E" and "Galloping Ghost" some of the most often repeated nicknames on both sides of the epic World War II Battle of the Pacific.
Over the course of virtually every major naval battle in the Pacific theater, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) steamed more than a quarter-million miles and pioneered 24-hour carrier operations, writes shipyard historian William A. Fox in "Always Good Ships."
Damaged in combat 15 times, the great gray warship was reported sunk by the Japanese on at least six different occasions. But it always reappeared after the smoke cleared and fought on to destroy more than 900 Japanese planes, sink 71 ships and damage 192 other vessels.
Not for nothing did the Japanese high command want the resilient and deadly Enterprise sunk more than any other American ship -- and the commanders of the American Pacific fleet reward their most outstanding warrior with 20 battle stars.
"For consistently outstanding performance and distinguished achievement during repeated action against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific war area," the ship's Presidential Citation reads.
"Participating in nearly every major carrier engagement in the first year of the war, the Enterprise and her air group, exclusive of far-flung destruction of hostile shore installations throughout the battle area, did sink or damage on her own a total of 35 Japanese vessels and shot down a total of 185 Japanese aircraft.
"Her aggressive spirit and superb combat efficiency are fitting tribute to the officers and men who so gallantly established her as an ahead bulwark in the defense of the American nation."
In addition to the destructive raids carried out by such famed naval aviators as "The Grim Reapers," the Enterprise became renowned for the bravery and skill of its damage-control crews, who patched up the often severely damaged ship so well that it always made it home to the repair yards at Pearl Harbor.
The carrier also performed memorably in the months after the war, transporting thousands of American Marines home from their victory in the Pacific.
Scrapped in the late 1950s after a failed attempt to preserve it as a museum, the Enterprise lives on through a tower erected at the Naval Academy, which also houses and rings its bell after football victories against the Army team from West Point.
It also gave its name to the world's first nuclear aircraft carrier, CVN-65, which was launched by many of the same builders at the Newport News yard in 1960 and decommissioned there earlier in 2013 after an illustrious career of more than 50 years.
A third Enterprise carrier -- CVN-80 -- is scheduled to be constructed and operational by 2025.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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