After 194 years, Navy shipyard in Phila. closing

September 14, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- As the USS John F. Kennedy pulled out of Pier 6 yesterday, Herb Dodds, marine machinist, lifted his camera to capture the moment. And when he lowered it, he had tears in his eyes.

"This is enough to make a grown man cry," Mr. Dodds said as he watched "Big John," the last ship to be overhauled in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, sail out on the Delaware River.

Mr. Dodds' T-shirt said it all: "1801-1995 A Proud Tradition."

Tomorrow, after 194 years of service, the shipyard is scheduled to shut down. It's the last day of work for the 1,600 employees.

So Mr. Dodds, 45, was out there to wave goodbye to Big John, as well as the $16-an-hour job that put food on his table for 21 years.

"I'm going to have to do something, I've got three kids at home," Mr. Dodds said as he watched the ship leave. "I'd love to sit down and collect unemployment, but I can't."

The JFK was in dry dock for two years, as shipyard workers completed a $600-million renovation on the 27-year-old carrier. It included the largest boiler overhaul ever, removing old hull paint and modernizing radar, air conditioning and anti-submarine warfare systems.

Yesterday, before it left the docks, Big John was packed with hundreds of crew members who stood in bright white uniforms on the deck of the 1,051-foot-long, 23-story-high aircraft carrier. The ship raised its colors and blasted its whistle. And as it cruised the Delaware, Big John's cannons fired an 11-gun salute as a final goodbye.

That really got to Mr. Dodds.

"I've seen 'em all come and go, but that's the only one that ever fired a salute to the shipyard," Mr. Dodds said.

Today and tomorrow, Mr. Dodds said, he'll gather his belongings, say goodbye to co-workers and reflect on what the shipyard used to be.

"We go out with the knowledge that we were the best," he said. "And we were closed by politics."

For many workers, the send-off for the John F. Kennedy began the wake for the Navy Yard.

Many workers on Pier Six wore black Grim Reaper T-shirts that bore the legend, "Doom on the Delaware," and "Even The Best Are Put To Rest, Jan. 1801 -- Sept. 1995 PNSY"

Enterprising, soon-to-be unemployed shipyard workers had printed the shirts and sold them for $10 each. It was a smart move, especially since shipyard workers found out in recent days the severance checks they were depending on may not be cut until the end of October.

So workers had financial troubles on their mind as well as history.

"It's the end of an era," said Paul Tussey, 36, a pipefitter, who was wearing a Grim Reaper T-shirt. "It's kind of the last chapter of the story. And it's been coming for a long time."

Mr. Tussey said he has been paying in advance his mortgage and his bills, and stocking up on groceries for himself and his wife and three children.

"We've been planning ahead," he said. "I've got resumes out."

But as he was leaving, he said, he was appreciative of his $16-an-hour job that he had worked for 14 1/2 years.

"It's been a good living," he said. "I've learned a lot of things down here."

He recalled as a high point a 10-day trouble-shooting cruise on the Kennedy in August. The carrier traveled from Philadelphia to Bermuda, dodging Hurricane Felix and 20- to 30-foot seas.

"I'll miss the people," Mr. Tussey said. "I have a lot of friends down here."

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