Capt. William C. Hamilton, Jr., Commanding Officer of the USS Enterprise, discusses the aircraft carrier's defueling process.

Newport News shipyard workers built the USS Enterprise, but their attention did not stop there.

When the one-of-a-kind aircraft carrier demanded special attention, they flew halfway around the world to fix it. When the ship returned from its final combat deployment in November 2012, ending more than 50 years of military service, a few veteran shipbuilders climbed in a small boat and escorted it into Hampton Roads.

Among them was Rodger Morefield, a sheet metal foreman with 34 years at Newport News Shipbuilding. He's fairly certain the little boat didn't get too close because the Coast Guard has rules about such things.

Then again, he was blinded by love.

"She's the only girlfriend I'm allowed to have, I'll put it that way," he said. "She has been high maintenance, but she has been worth it."

The Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, protected the nation's interests from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to the war in Afghanistan in 2012. Now retired from service, it sits in Pier 2 at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

It is being shut down one last time.

About 600 sailors and twice as many shipyard employees are completing an "inactivation," in Navy parlance, for which HII was given a $745 million contract. The Enterprise will remain in Newport News until 2016. Eventually, it will be towed from Hampton Roads around the tip of South America to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash.

There it will be dismantled and recycled. And that's something shipyard workers would rather not talk about.

"It hurts – I'll tell you what," said Melvin Lassiter, a Newport News insulator who first worked on the ship in 1990.

The Navy has never permanently shut down a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. A big part of the job — removing spent fuel from the ship's nuclear reactors — is nothing new. Newport News has accomplished several mid-life carrier overhauls, which involve defueling followed by refueling. That's part of getting the ship back in the fight, as the Navy likes to put it.

But the Enterprise has no more fighting days left, and shipyard workers now face a sad reality: The ship is literally going dark before their eyes.

"We've got probably half the ship or more that is uninhabited," said Dave Long, program director. "It's dark — no electricity, no ventilation. And we've actually sectioned it off with certain barriers and locks, very safely, so people can't get lost."

Long tells the story about a small group of Newport News workers who would hop on a plane to make repair calls to a different part of the globe. That's the kind of loyalty the Enterprise inspires, he said.

Today, some employees simply want to walk onto the ship one last time. Long is already fielding requests from employees to "ride" the ship for a few hundred yards when, in January, it will transfer from Pier 2 to Dry Dock 11.

Sailors have an attachment as well.

Morefield's remark about "high maintenance" might sound like a joke, but it isn't. Operating a one-of-kind ship that is decades old sometimes required spare parts to be built from scratch. And when it came to propulsion, the Enterprise and its array of eight nuclear reactors — Nimitz-class carriers have two — made any tour memorable.

"Serving on Enterprise was almost a badge of honor among those who were nuclear trained," said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, now Navy's program executive officer of aircraft carriers. "If you didn't serve on Enterprise, you really haven't lived."

The inactivation of the Enterprise is proceeding in phases, said Moore. The first phase involves removing major components from the ship. The island on the flight deck has already been shortened — Moore says it looks like the ship has a "buzz cut."

"The good news is, a lot of that equipment has gone back and been refurbished — kind of like being an organ donor," he said.