Veterans recall USS Enterprise tragedy, say goodbye to ship

(CBS News) For half a century -- from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- the USS Enterprise has been there. But this was its moment of truth: a fire that erupted one morning in 1969 as the Enterprise was conducting a final battle drill before heading to Vietnam.

Michael Carlin saw it happen. He recalled to CBS News recently, "About 20 seconds after the first ones went off, and now the whole deck, it's all flames leaping from aircraft to another, the other rockets went off."

The exhaust from a service vehicle had ignited one of the rockets, setting off a chain reaction of explosions.

Carlin said, "The shaped charge from these warheads blew across deck and lit those aircraft up over there and just mowed down everybody that was in the way."

In addition to rockets, each aircraft was armed with six 500-pound bombs, which started cooking off, blowing away sailors trying to fight a fire fed by jet fuel.

Carlin recalled, "It's in flames with these things going off here there, here, there. Everything was destroyed."

Silent video taken by a deck camera doesn't capture the searing heat or the concussions from 500-pound bombs which Michael Neville, then just 18, faced head on. "Even in between the detonations, it's the fire itself," Neville said. "It's just a constant roar. It's just a sort of (an) all-consuming roar."

He learned firsthand what that old cliche "never give up the ship" really means.

Asked if he was scared, Neville said, "There's no doubt that I was scared. I have no memory of being scared, but I know that I was scared. ... I had to be. I'd be crazy if I wasn't."

A destroyer came alongside with fire hoses lashed to its gun barrels and tried to help, but the fire was beyond the power of men to control.

Carlin said, "Until all the fuel burned out. Until the weapons burned out. You could hit it with everything you had and you weren't stopping this. You were not stopping this."

On-board, 15 aircraft were destroyed, a hole was blown through two-and-a-half inches of steel, sending burning jet fuel cascading onto the decks below. Twenty-eight men died, and more than 300 were injured. But "The Big E," as it is called, survived. Just 51 days after it limped into Pearl Harbor for repairs, it was on its way to Vietnam. Now it has come home for the last time to Norfolk, Va., to be taken out of service. No planes will ever launch from this flight deck again.

"I see what it was like that day," Neville said. "You don't get rid of that memory."

Former crewmen are coming back with their families to say their goodbyes. Among them are Carlin and Neville who were there the day "The Big E" almost died.

For David Martin's full report, watch the video above.