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Sailing on the Blue Ghost

During World War II, the aircraft carrier the USSLexington was one of the most celebrated ships in the U.S. Navy. In the 1970s,toward the end of her long and storied career, I had the privilege to sail on the Lexington. At the time, she was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico training Navy fighterpilots.

During wartime, The Lexington served in the Pacific for 21 months, active innearly every major operation against Japanese targets. Her planes shot down 372 aircraft and destroyed more than 475 airplanes on the ground. In four different battles, she was so severely damaged by torpedoes and Kimikazi pilots that the Japanese reported she had been sunk. But each time, she returned to fight again, prompting Tokyo Rose, the propagandist, to call her the Blue Ghost.

I first saw the Lexington from the air. My film crew and I had been hired bythe Navy to make a recruiting film for young Naval aviators. We were flown out to the ship by helicopter. Even as we drew close, it seemed impossible that a jet aircraft could land on that tiny flight deck bounding around in heavy seas. It soon became apparent that conditions were too dangerous to land us by helicopter. I assumed we would return to base at Corpus Christi, but then they began to strap on harnesses and open the helicopter’s starboard door and I was shocked to realize they were going to push us out the door and lower us down onto the carrier with cables. The wind was howling through the door, my heart was drumming almost as loud as the rotors were, and soon I found myself in the middle of the air, dangling from a bounding helicopter above a distant deck that seemed never to be in the same place twice. I remember watching our cameraman his arms and legs flailing around at the end of his tether and I determined I would make a more dignified descent, graceful, legs together, toes pointed, arms at my side, like a diver about to stick a half gainer. With the wind buffeting the helicopter and the ship moving in the sea, sometimes it seemed I was lifted far above the deck, then I would plummet down near again, and then soon we and our equipment were safely in the arms of a gaggle of swabbies who lowered us to the deck.

The work was thrilling. Much of the time we were on the flight deck filmingthe fighter jets take off and land. At first it seemed like chaos, the thunderous roar of the jet engines, planes and groups of men moving everywhere. The landing signal officer with his paddles guiding the jets to a landing, planes slamming aboard, hurled into the air.

But then I became aware of a precise choreography. The aircraft handlers,crash and salvage crews, elevator operators, tractor drivers – each group wearing different colored jerseys. It was a kind of ballet of men and machines, the wind and the sea. And there was always this sense of extraordinary danger as the powerful fighters approached, growing larger and larger, seemingly coming far too fast, guided only by the pilot’s senses and the paddles of the signal officer standing alone on deck facing the approaching plane like a matador facing a charging bull. And then, the controlled crash, as the plane hammered down on the deck and was snagged by one of the four arresting cables and was wrenched to a violent stop before it could careen off the flight deck into the sea. It was endlessly fascinating and made wonderful footage.

After a few days, we had all the footage and interviews we needed and itwas time to go home. I had been so fully occupied that I hadn’t thought about how we would get off the ship. But it soon became apparent we would not be yanked back up into a helicopter, but hurled into the air by a slingshot. Being catapulted off an aircraft carrier was almost as exciting as being lowered from a helicopter and I didn’t need to point my toes. The last I saw of the Blue Ghost, she was merely a dot on the surface of the sea, all that power and thunder and perfection and bravery and history diminished by distance.

When the Lexington was decommissioned, in 1991, she was the oldestremaining fleet aircraft carrier in the world. Within a few years she was retired as a floating museum in Corpus Christi and was named a National Historic Landmark. I treasure the memory of sailing, if only for a little while, on a legend.

Marshall Riggan has been telling and writing stories for more than half acentury, many of which have been made into movies and television productions. Much of his writing has been about dialing and the sea. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be found at https://www.marshallriggan