On the foggy morning of January 15, 2022, the American carrier USS Kitty Hawk departed from the Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington for its last voyage, the destination is a shipbreaking facility in Brownsville, Texas where the emblematic vessel is set to be scrapped.
The ship was decommissioned in 2009 and had been on standby ever since, waiting for a possible reactivation that never came. The Kitty Hawk was sold for a penny (literally) to The International Shipbreaking Ltd, the same facility responsible for breaking up three other US carriers: USS Ranger, USS Independence, and USS Constellation.
Because of its enormous size, the ship won’t fit in the Panama Canal and it must be towed all the way around South America, in a 16.000 miles journey.
This is the closing chapter in the history of the last oil-burning American aircraft carrier, the ship saw action in every major conflict that the USA was involved in since the Vietnam war and for this reason, it was affectionately called “The Fighting Kitten” or the “Battle Cat”.
When completed, back in 1959, the Kitty Hawk cost $264 million in 1961 money, equivalent to around $2.5 billion in 2021.
The ship left for its first operational cruise in August 1961, right before things started to go sour in Vietnam. During its 47 years of service, the “Battle Cat” carried a variety of interesting planes, like the F8U Crusader, F4 Phantom, the legendary F14 Tomcat, and even some experiments with the U2 spy plane.
Besides being involved in many wars, the Kitty Hawk was also part of some very interesting events, for example, in 1972, while still serving in Vietnam, racial tensions aboard the ship came to boiling point and became a riot, injuring as many as 60 sailors. The incident led the Navy to implement the UPWARD (Understanding Personal Worth and Racial Dignity) program, intended to raise racial awareness.
But it was in 1984 that the “Fighting Kitten” was involved in a very bizarre and dangerous incident.
In March 1984, Kitty Hawk was participating in joint naval exercises called “Team-Spirit 84”, with South Korean forces, in the Sea of Japan. Thanks to the extremely volatile situation between North and South Korea, the ship spent around 10 years in the region, as a deterrent against any crazy idea from the “commies“
During the peak of the Cold War, it was a common practice for the Soviet Navy to closely follow NATO ships and when I say “closely”, I really mean it. That was a good way to exercise tactics and maneuvers in a real-world environment and also to force the Americans to show any new weapons.
Things were not different on that occasion, the Soviets sent a few warships, airplanes, and the K-314, the Victor-Class nuclear attack submarine, to follow the Kitty Hawk and its 8 escort ships.
Before we proceed let’s take a look at these two magnificent machines involved in this surreal event.
The Kitty Hawk.
The ship was completed in 1959 and entered service in 1961, it was the first of the so-called “supercarriers”, an evolution of the ” Forrestal-class” carriers that fought in WWII.
The Battle Cat is a massive ship:
Length: 325.8 meters (1,068 ft)
Displacement: 83,300 tons (fully loaded)
Beam (width): 86 meters (282 ft)
Power comes from eight Foster Wheeler boilers, providing steam for the Westinghouse turbines, generating a total of 280,000 HP. All this power is then distributed to four propeller shafts, allowing the ship to sail at a max speed of 33 knots (61 Km/h).
The carrier is capable to transport 85 aircraft, some of them could be armed with nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 5,624 officers and seamen.
The K-314 belongs to the “Yorsh” family of Soviet subs and code-named “Victor-class” attack submarine by NATO. Its primary mission is to intercept any kind of enemy ship. It is smaller, faster, and more maneuverable than a ballistic missile sub.
It was launched on September 05, 1972.
Length: 94.3 meters (309 ft)
Beam (width): 10 meters (32 ft 10 inc)
Displacement: 4,826 tons
The K-314 was powered by one pressurized water turbine, receiving heat from a VM-4 nuclear reactor core, generating 31,000 HP, enough power to propel the ship to a max speed of 32 knots (60 Km/h) submerged.
The details of the armament are classified but it was armed with torpedoes and nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 94 officers and seamen.
On March 14, the K-314 spotted the American armada and immediately started the chase. As soon as the captain of the “Battle Cat” got the sub on the sonar, he tried every trick he knew to break away from the Soviet sub. The two commanders kept playing this “cat and mouse” game for a whole week. Many times the Americans knew exactly where the K-314 was but sometimes it would simply disappear. The problem is the Sea of Japan is too shallow for maximum performance of the sonar equipment, and to make matters even worse, the region is constantly busy with the traffic of military and merchant ships, it can be a nightmare for the sonar operators.
At this point, the K-314 was also being chased by a submarine hunter Lockheed P-3 Orion.
In the early hours of March, 21, Captain Vladimir Evseenko lost track of the Americans, mostly due to bad weather. He decided to bring the sub to periscope depth, around 10 meters, to take a peek around but what he saw was probably the scariest thing ever: the Kitty Hawk at 4 maybe 5 kilometres away, steaming down at full speed, approaching the K-314 from the stern. He ordered emergency diving but it was too late, the collision was inevitable. Here is what happened, according to Captain Evseenko:
“The first thought was that the conning tower had been destroyed and the submarine’s body was cut to pieces“. “We checked the periscope and antennas – they were in order. No leaks were reported, and the mechanisms were ok. Then suddenly another strike! On the starboard side! We checked again – everything was in order…. We were trying to figure out what happened. It became clear that an aircraft carrier had rammed us. The second strike hit the propeller. The first one, most likely, bent the stabilator.”
Onboard the Orion plane, the K-314 signal got mixed with the sound of the Kitty Hawk, they thought the sub was going under the carrier when they heard a loud bang and a screeching noise that lasted for long minutes. The crew looked at each other in disbelief.
Onboard the Battle Cat, the collision caught everybody by surprise, here is the story, told by Captain David N. Rogers:
“I was on the bridge at the time of the incident, monitoring one of the two radars. “We felt a sudden shudder, a fairly violent shudder. We immediately launched two helicopters to see if we could render any assistance to them but the Soviet sub appeared to have suffered no extensive damage“.
News of the accident travelled fast, a seaman stormed into the mess room and shouted: “We run over the Ivans” and the whole room erupted in cheers.
Captain Evseenko had no other option but to bring the K-314 to surface and wait for help. After daybreak, the Kitty Hawk sent the choppers again for some precious pictures, after all, it is not every day you have a Soviet sub sitting still right in front of you. There was no sign of radioactive material leaking and the ship was not sinking, but it was not seaworthy. A Soviet cruiser stood at its side, for protection, until the tug boats came and towed the crippled sub away.
The Kitty Hawk didn’t leave the scene unscathed, the collision opened a hole in its hull and a considerable amount of jet fuel poured into the ocean, the ship was making water, but not much and it was able to make it to the base on its own.
Later on, the maintenance crew found a big chunk of the K-314 propeller stuck on the carrier’s hull and the piece was kept as a trophy.
Miraculously no one got hurt in the accident and there was no radioactive leakage. Both ships were armed with nuclear missiles but it was very unlikely that the collision would detonate the weapons since they need to be armed to pose any danger.
Even if a much bigger catastrophe didn’t materialize that morning, one can’t help but think: how could both captains let this happen? On the American side, there is a reasonable explanation: as dangerous as those exercises were, it was a peacetime operation, they were not shooting at each other and Captain Rogers knew the K-314 was mostly trying to disrupt the operation; in this case, from time to time the Kitty Hawk crew would turn a blind eye (or in this case, a deaf ear) to the annoying sub and just concentrate on the exercise and probably the collision happened during one of those period of time.
On the Soviet side, things were a bit more complicated, Captain Evseenko’s sole mission during the operation was to stalk the Kitty Hawk so, how could he lose contact with an 80.000-ton ship that was no further than 5 Km away?
For some specialists, the commander lied about what happened. The Soviet submarine captains were very reckless during the last years of the Cold War, one of their favorite maneuvers was to emerge, at full speed, right in the middle of an American task force, just to show to the enemy how daring a Soviet captain can be. Probably that was what Evseenko tried to do but he grossly miscalculated the speed and distance of the Battle Cat.
Evseenko was relieved of his sea Captain duties and spent the rest of his career ashore, but he always believed his punishment was too harsh. He sums up: “We didn’t sink, nobody died”.
This is just another story about those crazy years of the Cold War, a time when we lived mostly in peace but at the same time, awfully close to total annihilation.