PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Last week, as the tug pulling the retired Navy aircraft carrier Saratoga plodded up the Atlantic coast toward Newport, R.I., James R. Dahl slowly made his way through 35 years of memory, to the dotted line where he signed his name and the heaving deck where he did his job.
"I was 17 years old when I went on that ship, and it amazed me. It amazed me," said Dahl, now 51, a former machinist's mate on the Saratoga.
"I signed up on my birthday, and I lived there for three years. I always wanted to know if I got back on it if I could find my space again."
In all the years that have passed since Dahl was discharged, the sight of the Saratoga and the hold it has on his heart have never lost their power.
Unlike those childhood places whose physical stature has diminished with time, this 1,063-foot vessel - one of the Forrestal-class supercarriers built by the Navy - has grown in grandeur as Dahl has grown older.
Now relieved of obligation in inactive status, the Saratoga, commissioned in 1956, is destined for mothballs.
The Grand Lady of the 6th Fleet - which cruised off Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962, whose aircraft flew more than 15,000 combat strike missions during the Vietnam War, and which unleashed more than 4 million pounds of ordnance in Operation Desert Storm - will slid alongside Pier 1 at Coddington Cove, in Middletown, R.I., last week.
As the Saratoga drifted through the growing shadow of the Pell Bridge, Dahl watched his own youthful ghost pass by.
"I'd love to see that thing go back down the bay," said Dahl, who now lives in Cranston, R.I., and works as a toolmaker in Providence.
"I'd love to spend four or five hours on it. ... I'll go down and see it from the shore. I'm going to go to Fort Adams. I'll try to get to Coddington Cove. The closer I get, the better I'll feel.
"Right now, I'm trying to go back through my head and remember everything."
In the next few weeks, veterans with ties to this and two other naval giants will join Dahl in revisiting the past.
Forrestal and Iowa awaited
By mid-September, the aircraft carrier Forrestal, commissioned in 1955, and the World War II-era battleship Iowa, commissioned in 1943, will join the Saratoga in mothballs at Pier 1.
"It's kind of sad that it's just going to be sitting there," said John F. Begg Jr. of Newport, a former Navy dentist who spent two of his seven Navy years on the Saratoga, cleaning teeth and filling cavities.
"I would like to be able to get my son aboard to see my dental clinic and where my quarters were," he said.
The Navy needed a vacant deep-draft harbor that could accommodate these vessels with minimal environmental impact. Pier 1 was the ideal location, a site that hasn't berthed a Navy vessel since 1973, when the Shore Establishment Realignment Program sent all Newport-based ships to southern ports.
The ships are being moved from their docks at the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility, at the site of the former Philadelphia Navy Base, to make way for commercial development, a project that city officials call the Philadelphia Naval Business Center.
It's the kind of development that Middletown officials hope will happen someday at Coddington Cove, the kind they fear will never happen with three old warhorses - all closed to the public - dozing on the water.
"I do believe that the presence of the ships could really hinder economic development down there," Middletown Town Councilman Michael P. Kehew said.
"But we also recognize that it's the Navy's property, and any development necessitates them as a full partner."
Speaking for himself, Kehew said he'd like to see the Saratoga towed out to sea and sunk. Like other Aquidneck Island officials, he's disappointed but realistic.
"If the Navy needs a favor, we'll do it for them," said Newport Mayor David S. Gordon. "They have expanded at the Naval Education and Training Center and at the Naval War College. We'll do what we're called upon to do."
Towed at the end of 1,200 feet of wire, the ship crept north on its 300-mile journey at 4 knots.
She was a landmark'
A handful of workers at the former Philadelphia shipyard watched glumly shortly after dawn as the Saratoga was pulled from its berth by the Powhaten, facility director Joseph C. Flaherty said.
Navy Public Affairs Officer Warren C. Christensen was one of them.
"She was a landmark here and we'll miss her," said Christensen. "It messes up my skyline, but it's adding to yours. These three ships will add a Navy ship presence that has been missing from a Navy town. You can't sail 'em and you can't go aboard 'em, but you sure can look at 'em."
James Dahl will be looking with all his might. "You live and breathe and work and sleep together," Dahl said of the community aboard the Saratoga. "Going back a lot of years, I still miss those people - all the different walks of life, all the characters. The Saratoga still holds a special place for me."
Pub Date: 8/13/98