VOYAGE TO HER OWN FUNERAL Coral Sea arrives for the scrap heap


Accompanied by an entourage of tugboats, the USS Coral Sea made its way up the Chesapeake Bay yesterday to the scrap heap, a casualty of Bush administration defense cuts.

The 46-year-old aircraft carrier, named for a pivotal World War II naval battle off Australia in May 1942, was overhauled at a cost of $200 million in the mid-1980s. It will now be dismantled and sold for perhaps $1 million, its armor plates destined for stainless steel factories.

Old Navy ships once were sunk, then used as artificial reefs. But the practice was stopped because of environmental concerns.

The fate of the Coral Sea, the so-called "Ageless Warrior," is a blow to sentimental crew members, who had fought since 1990 to find a city where the carrier could retire as a museum or tourist attraction. But potential deals with several cities fell through and the Navy ended up selling the carrier this year to a New York company.

"I'll tell you, it's more than 65,000 tons of steel to someone who has served aboard a vessel of that type," said retired Navy Lt. Frank H. Robinson Jr. of Towson, a junior officer on the Coral Sea in the mid-1950s. "Historically, there are good ships and some that are not so good, for reasons I don't understand," he said. "The Coral Sea was a good ship."

Sal Avellino, a Glen Cove, N.Y., crewman who has organized reunions for former crew members, said: "If you knew the history of that ship, you would cry. It's like, wow, they spent a fortune on it to upgrade and, lo and behold, suddenly it's no good."

The Coral Sea was one of the three "Midway" class carriers for which construction was undertaken during World War II. All have been taken out of commission -- the Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1977, the Midway in 1992. But, while the Franklin D. Roosevelt was scrapped, the Midway is moth-balled in Bremerton, Wash., and a Puerto Rican group that tried to buy the Coral Sea is considering it, instead.

In its 43 years of service, the Coral Sea sailed more than 2 million miles. Its motto was: "Older and Bolder and Better."

The ship began service in the Atlantic Ocean. It didn't see its first combat action until Vietnam, where jets took off from its flight deck in the first and last air strikes of that war. Pilots on the Coral Sea flew 10,000 combat sorties from December 1964 through November 1965, a record for a Navy carrier on a single mission. In 1975, it assisted in the evacuation of South Vietnam.

Jets from the Coral Sea participated in the 1986 air strike against Libya. And the carrier was on a mission off the coast of Lebanon when it was called back to Norfolk, Va., in late 1989.

According to published reports, then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney estimated that $53.3 million could be saved by taking the diesel-powered Coral Sea out of service and replacing it with a nuclear-powered carrier.

At 986 feet in length and 136 feet across at its widest point, the now engine-less Coral Sea needed two tugboats and five days to cover a 377-mile circuitous route from Philadelphia to Baltimore, by way of Cape Henry. As it entered the Chesapeake Bay yesterday morning, three more tugboats joined in, then a sixth helped it dock at Fairfield in South Baltimore.

Andrew Levy, vice president of NR Marine in New York, estimated it will take Seawitch Salvage about 15 months to dismantle the ship at Kurt Iron & Metal Inc. Former crew members who hope to find souvenirs will be disappointed.

"The Navy has thoroughly stripped the ship," said Mr. Levy, who boarded it from a helicopter before it passed beneath the Francis Scott Key Bridge. "I was on it this morning and there's nothing left," he said.

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