In 1962, when the USS Enterprise was commissioned, crowds would gather in awe at every port it entered. It was the world's first nuclear aircraft carrier, powered by eight reactors.
"Big E'' was more than 1,000 feet long. On deck there was room for dozens of planes. Down below, there were accommodations for 4,600 crew members.
It was described by many as "a floating airbase.''
Hugh Palmer was a 1958 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy whose three brothers also chose military careers. His older brother, Warren, attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and his two younger brothers, Walla and Michael, followed in Hugh's footsteps, earning appointments to the Naval Academy as well.
When Palmer, who had already served stints on the USS Randolph and the USS Independence, heard that he would be assigned to the Enterprise as a pilot, he couldn't believe his luck.
"The Enterprise was the biggest excitement in the world of aviation,'' he recalled.
Fast forward five decades.
Early this month, the USS Enterprise arrived back at its home port at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia after completing its final mission.
After 25 combat deployments, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War as well as both gulf wars, the USS Enterprise will be decommissioned in December.
When Palmer, 76, heard the announcement that the ship was being decommissioned, images of the aircraft carrier when it was brand new flashed through his head.
"I can't believe it's been 50 years. It will always be the vibrant, exciting ship that is all about the best of naval aviation,'' said Palmer, whose shipmates included U.S. Sen. John McCain and astronaut Bruce McCandless.
Palmer recalled that every time he'd climb into his plane, a WF-2, and get hooked up to the ship's catapulting system, he'd get an adrenaline rush.
"It was always a thrill. You'd go from zero to 100 knots immediately,'' said Palmer, who was on the Enterprise from the beginning, serving on its shakedown cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as its first Mediterranean cruise, when people in Greece, Italy and France would flock to the dock to catch a glimpse of the enormous vessel.
Palmer can't identify just one experience on the ship as the most memorable. "It's about the entire experience,'' he said.
However, he identifies the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation between the United States and Cuba in 1962 and the months leading up to it as "one of the most intense experiences.''
The carrier was headed home from a European voyage. "We were somewhere this side of Gibraltar, and it just didn't feel right (on the ship)," Palmer said. "When a cruise finishes up, typically all planes are tied down, signaling an end to flight operations, but that didn't happen."
Instead, Palmer and others were given an assignment by intelligence officers on board. They were told to take cameras and fly out to take pictures of several trawlers that had been spotted in the Atlantic.
"We did what we were told, and after the intelligence officers looked at our pictures, they sent us out again. They told us something like, 'Go find that trawler again, and we want pictures of what is on the port side this time.' We had no idea why we were doing it. We just followed orders.''
Palmer said he was never told why the photos were needed, "but what I believe is that the trawlers that had cluttered decks, with things packed in boxes for example, were seen as possibly having some sort of equipment maybe going to Cuba,'' he said.
Palmer was aboard the Enterprise when it participated in the tense military blockade of Cuba in October 1962.
"To see all the ships off the coast of Florida was a sight,'' he said.
Palmer served on the Enterprise for about three years. In 1965, with a young family to raise, he resigned his commission to return to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, to begin a new career in the steel industry.
In 1980, after making a series of business investments in Florida, the family moved once again, this time to Florida.
Palmer's wife, Pat, who was his childhood sweetheart, passed away in 2010. He continues to live in the home they made together in Dunedin. On display in his dining room is a tail hook from the Enterprise. When planes would come in for a landing on the carrier, the tail hook would latch onto a cable, halting the aircraft.
Palmer now spends much of his time with his three grown sons and their families.
"My sons are all (Florida) Gators,'' he said proudly. "None of them were interested in the military. It just wasn't for them, and that's okay. I saw plenty of men miserable, whose parents forced them to join,'' he said.
However, when Palmer looks back at his time on the USS Enterprise, he describes it "as an incredible experience.''
"I loved the opportunity of flying off of the ship,'' he said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected]