The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which left its home port in San Diego five months ago amid a storm of controversy, came home Saturday to fanfare under a bright, cloudless sky.
Sailors meticulously clad in white hats and blue uniforms stood in perfect formation for 90 minutes atop the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and spelled out “PROUD TO BE N AMERICAN.” Fireboats sprayed spectacular streams of water in the air and planes flew banners that pronounced “Home Are Our Heroes.” Mothers, wives and children waved signs and waited anxiously for hours at the pier.
None of the festivities offered the slightest hint that the Kitty Hawk’s deployment to the Indian Ocean in July had begun with charges of widespread fraud and waste and investigations into an alleged international jet parts smuggling ring and the disappearance of 31 silver bars.
Top officers on board assured reporters Saturday that a thorough investigation had cleared the ship of any wrongdoing. Sailors said that the scandals are now a distant memory and expressed hope that the allegations would not be brought up again.
Rear Adm. Dennis M. Brooks, commander of the Kitty Hawk battle group and the man who directed the Navy probe into charges of fraud and mismanagement within the ship’s supply system, praised the ship’s “textbook” cruise, which reportedly broke many operational records and marked the first time in recent memory that a carrier had completed back-to-back deployments without suffering a fatality.
“There was a cloud concerning some allegations with regard to accountability,” Brooks said. “I am proud of the depth in which we looked into the investigation. It only made us more aware of the strength we had in the supply department . . . and gave us confidence we were going to achieve a successful deployment.”
Brooks declined to elaborate on the results of his investigation or to comment on whether any officers were disciplined. Navy officials in Washington said they mailed copies of the 1,400-page investigation Friday to media organizations that requested it through the Freedom of Information Act. The Times’ Washington bureau did not receive its copy Saturday.
The probe into allegations by Robert Jackson, a second-class petty officer whose duties included auditing the ship’s books, was completed Oct. 1 and found no evidence of fraud or any individuals seeking personal monetary gain.
Jackson, who at one point was lionized in People magazine, alleged that the ship’s supply system could not account for expensive aircraft parts. He also said that sailors openly sold parts for personal gain and routinely dumped overboard other items such as desks and radar equipment. Many of his charges were publicized by Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego).
Jackson’s campaign prompted high-ranking Navy officials in Washington to scrutinize their supply system and make some sweeping changes. These included a decision to strip aircraft carriers of purchasing responsibilities for millions of dollars in high-priced parts and giving it to shore-based supply depots.
In a Sept. 30 memo sent to the House Armed Services sea power subcommittee, Adm. James D. Watkins, the chief of naval operations, said that seven of Jackson’s 11 allegations were unsubstantiated.
Those charges that were supported were not considered significant by Navy officials. They included the improper purchases of inexpensive items--flowers, books and “non-alcoholic wine"--by the Kitty Hawk’s commander, Capt. Phillip R. Wood, and the ship’s chaplain, Cmdr. Donald E. Dendulk. A second involved Lt. Michael Anderson, a division supply officer who falsified signatures on military documents that explained lost or missing materials. The two other findings were administrative errors, Navy officials said.
According to the memo, Wood and the ship’s supply officer, Cmdr. John Matthews, received a “non-punitive letter of caution” and Anderson was ordered taken “to mast,” a form of non-judicial punishment.
In his first interview since the investigation was finished, Wood on Saturday sat in his captain’s chair overlooking San Diego Bay moments after the Kitty Hawk had docked at the North Island Naval Air Station.
“This whole entire investigation came out awash and everything is turning out fine,” Wood said. “There are no problems. A lot of this is politically motivated. You can’t let that get to you.”
Wood said the ship’s supply troubles would not hinder his career. The Navy is scheduled to change commanders on the Kitty Hawk in February, and Wood indicated that he is considering several career alternatives, including retirement. He has not yet received his assignment orders from Washington, Wood said.
Referring to how the Kitty Hawk scandal could jeopardize Wood’s career, one Navy officer said, “I’d like to see him recover. I personally think it is a damned travesty that he got blown away by Jackson and Bates. He had a great career. He had this little burp, and he may have to pay the price.”
Showing no signs of concern, Wood said Saturday he is savoring the results of a record-setting cruise.
“Everyone has a smile on their face and not a scratch on them,” Wood said, waving a hand at his crewmen as they lined the flight deck. “It’s the best (deployment) ever. The record speaks for itself.”
The Kitty Hawk departed July 24 with a crew of 5,300 despite pleas to President Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger from Bates and Jackson to keep the ship in port. They asked for an accelerated investigation into allegations that F-14 parts were stolen from the carrier and shipped to Iran, as well as Jackson’s charges.
“If we wait six months for the return of this ship, the trail will have grown cold, more records may have gone over the side and (Jackson) will no longer be on active duty,” Bates wrote in a letter to Weinberger.
But the ship was allowed to sail. Three Naval Investigative Service agents--two more than usual--were assigned to the Kitty Hawk. The two investigators left the Kitty Hawk after three weeks, according to Capt. Peter Litrenta.
At the time, the Naval Investigative Service, U.S. Customs Service and FBI also were investigating the alleged theft ring. Eight people, including a Kitty Hawk aviation storekeeper, have been arrested so far in the case, which has not yet gone to trial.
Nevertheless, the ongoing investigations and nationwide publicity led many Navy officials and sailors assigned to the Kitty Hawk to become concerned about sagging morale aboard the ship and its possible effect on safety and performance.
The ship’s first major injury occurred 18 days into the cruise when Will C. Salberg, an airman apprentice, got a foot caught beneath an aircraft tire and was run over. Salberg, who suffered leg and chest injuries, was flown back to San Diego and hospitalized at the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park. His leg was amputated.
During the remainder of the cruise, only one other crewman was seriously injured. Michael D. McKinley, a boiler tender fireman, suffered severe electrical shocks when he placed his foot on an electrical welder as he took a drink from a nearby water fountain. When the corpsmen arrived to treat him, McKinley had no pulse and was not breathing. He is still in a coma at a U.S. military hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany.
Several sailors contracted serious cases of the flu that was initially diagnosed as malaria after the Kitty Hawk left a port call in Mombasa, Kenya. Also, three sailors jumped off the ship during the trip. Wood said that one of the sailors was emotionally disturbed and the other two wanted to get out of the Navy. All three were plucked out of the water by helicopters and suffered no serious injuries.
While these events may seem to portray the Kitty Hawk as a troubled ship, they are considered trivial on a carrier where the average sailor is 19 and works 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, doing dangerous work such as moving dozens of aircraft around a flight deck the length of three football fields.
Most carriers lose at least one crewman on an average six-month tour. During recent deployments, an airman recruit on the Constellation died in July in an auto accident during a port stop in Australia, a crewman aboard the Carl Vinson suffered a fatal heart attack in January, and both crewmen on an F-14 from the Enterprise were killed when the aircraft crashed in August, 1984.
The Kitty Hawk’s most recent tour marked the second consecutive cruise in which there were no fatalities, a feat that Navy officers were hard-pressed to match in searching their records. The only aircraft mishap on the Kitty Hawk’s recent deployment occurred Oct. 19, when an SH-3 Sea King helicopter crashed in the Indian Ocean. All five crewmen were rescued within 30 minutes. The crash is under investigation.
The Kitty Hawk achieved numerous performance records during its latest cruise, according to Cmdr. Tom Jurkowsky, a Navy spokesman. The Kitty Hawk’s air wing, which consists of 87 jets and helicopters used for attack, defense and surveillance, maintained readiness rates exceeding 90%, about 10% above the average. At the same time, the carrier consumed 25% less fuel than during its previous deployment.
Also, only 10 repairable aircraft components out of tens of thousands were awaiting repairs by Kitty Hawk mechanics at any one time. Most carriers are satisfied with a waiting list of 40 parts, Jurkowsky said.
“Our ships all are doing very, very well at this point in time,” Jurkowsky said. “But when you get a ship like the Kitty Hawk that turns in this type of performance, you can’t describe it as anything short of superlative.”
Wood said that the controversy surrounding the Kitty Hawk had little effect on his crew, although he acknowledged that many of his men were “bewildered” by newspaper stories.
One lieutenant commander who asked not to be identified said Saturday that the Kitty Hawk crew felt the San Diego community had “turned its back” on the carrier.
“You tend to get upset when you see that kind of publicity when you make the sacrifices we make,” Lt. Eric Dziura said. “You say, ‘Hey, we’re not that bad. Why are they picking on us?’ The vast majority of individuals on this ship are doing a great job.”
Wood said that his officers and sailors quickly forgot about the allegations of wrongdoing.
“I convinced them not to worry . . . that it was a lot of (bull),” Wood said. “The only thing available to them is the media and as you know it doesn’t always present factual information.”
Wood said he offered his men “the proper perspective” on things and told them not to lose any sleep over the allegations.
Wood said he avoided reading news accounts of recent developments during the deployment.
“I told my people and my wife don’t bother to send me any press clippings. They didn’t,” Wood said. “I love my ship and I love my Navy.”
He then criticized the media for its “irresponsible” coverage of the Kitty Hawk’s supply problems and accused reporters of getting “squeamish” whenever they hear Navy officers speak about their country in patriotic terms.
Wood also assailed Jackson and Bates for their roles in initiating the investigations.
“Bates and Jackson don’t have enough sense to know when to come in out of the rain,” Wood said. ". . . You want to talk about shooting from the hip without the facts.”
Wood said that Jackson faced two disciplinary hearings for unauthorized absences when he jumped ship last summer to become a whistle blower.
“I never had laid eyes on the man,” he said. “He stormed off the ship . . . then once he started screaming to Bates he became a hot potato and we couldn’t touch him. He was no longer held accountable for his actions.”
Jackson, who has said he tried to talk to Wood while assigned to the Kitty Hawk, did not return phone calls Saturday and neither did Bates.
As the San Diego skyline, the waiting crowds and hundreds of bright balloons appeared in the distance Saturday morning, several officers and enlisted personnel interviewed aboard the Kitty Hawk said they hope that allegations are not rehashed and reinvestigated now that the ship is in port.
“It wasn’t forgotten,” Ens. Francois Lavere said. “The biggest apprehension is how will we be treated when we pull back in.”
Others on the ship said they no longer think about the ship’s problems.
“It’s in the past. I’d like to leave it buried,” sailor Steve Miller said. “Like the captain says, ‘Press on!’ ”
Sailor Raymond Gevas, holding a pair of leather work gloves and a pack of Marlboros, wasn’t interested in discussing the supply system problems as he peered over the ship searching for a first glimpse of his twin daughters who were born in August.
Helen Gevas had arrived at 7 a.m. after driving from San Luis Obispo. By the time Raymond got off the ship 3 1/2 hours later, both of his baby girls dressed in violet outfits were fast asleep.
He picked them up in his arms anyway and told reporters, “This is Kristy and this is Misty” without really knowing who was who.