04/02/07 — On board history

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On board history

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 2, 2007 1:45 PM

He was there when it was being built. He oversaw the installation of what some might say were its most important parts. He was standing on the deck when it first shoved off from Norfolk, Va. And he would have liked to have been there when it finished its tour of duty at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., March 23.

But Chief Petty Officer George Vrbetic wasn't there.

Instead he was at his home in Pikeville with his wife, Nellie.

And it wasn't until two days later that he found out the USS John F. Kennedy had been decommissioned.

"I had no idea until I read it in the paper Sunday," Vrbetic said with a bit of regret seeping into his voice. "I sure would have liked to have been on it that time."

After all, he was one of the first sailors to stand on its deck.

He was the man in charge of outfitting "Big John" with its primary mission gear -- the aircraft catapults and landing hooks.

"There were four of us," Vrbetic said of his 1967 assignment to Norfolk. "We were sent down there as overseers on the ship.

"It was already constructed and everything. We were in there to make sure the catapults and the rest of the machinery were put in properly.

"We were selected because we were the best they knew about."

A chief petty officer at the time, Vrbetic had begun his career in the Navy some 18-and-a-half years earlier.

"I just figured I liked ships, so I enlisted in the Navy. The day after I enlisted, I got my draft notice for the Army," he said with a laugh.

From then on, he spent his naval career on the water, but his entry into naval aviation came about by accident.

"I was stationed in California when they came looking for volunteers to go to the East Coast," he said.

He didn't know why they wanted volunteers, but he knew he wanted to be closer to his Cleveland, Ohio, home, so he raised his hand.

It turned out that they wanted airmen.

'I told them, 'Well yeah, I'm an airman," Vrbetic said.

The next day, though, he was called back.

"They said, 'You weren't an airman, but you are now," he continued. "I said, 'Well, I thought I was.'

"I didn't have the foggiest ideas what was going on when I enlisted."

Eventually, he became an aviation boatswain's mate, working with aircraft and the catapults.

"I enjoyed it very much. I liked the first four years I served so much, I went ahead and enlisted for six more," he said.

His first assignment was on the second USS Hornet. From there, he served on the USS Antietam, the USS Valley Forge, the USS Intrepid and the USS Shangri-La, spending two to three years on each and helping launch aircraft during the Korean Conflict.

Standing on the flight deck, with planes being shot into the sky around him, he said, was exciting business.

"It's kind of noisy, but it's pretty simple," Vrbetic said of the process that uses upwards of 450-pounds of steam pressure to accelerate a 60,000-pound aircraft to speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour in less than two seconds.

"Everything has got to be right, though, otherwise the pilot ends up in the drink.

"It's quite an experience."

By the time he got to the USS Kennedy, he was in charge of making sure its 85 planes were launched and captured safely.

It was the last accomplishment of his career.

Once the carrier was commissioned in 1968, it set off on a six-month cruise of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

When he returned, he retired. His 20 years were up and he was 37 years old.

"I enjoyed it more than the earlier ones because it was so much bigger and so much newer," Vrbetic said. "It doesn't even enter your mind (that you're on the water). It took quite a bit of rough sea to even rock one of those carriers.

"It's bigger than a football field. It's like a huge, floating hotel. It's got about 5,000 men on there. You could have a brother on there and never even know it."

Once Vrbetic stepped off the Kennedy, though, he never went back, even as he continued to live in Newport News for several years running a gas station.

"Going across the James River bridge, you could see it in a distance," he said.

But that was the closest he got.

"An aircraft carrier has a lifespan of only 20 years, then they mothball it," Vrbetic said. "Being on the ship and knowing how it is, it was kind of sad.

"I would have been glad to be there (at the decommissioning) had I known about it."

Soon, the USS John F. Kennedy, which launched aircraft during Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1990, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2002 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq in 2004, will be taken to Philadelphia where it will be placed on inactive status.

Vrbetic, 74, hopes that then, he will be able to visit it one more time.

"We like to travel, so we'll get there," he said.