by John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS COASTAL BEND BUREAU
Metro / South Texas
NAVAL STATION INGLESIDE — The USS Inchon, a 600-foot-long Navy ship that was home and protector for thousands of sailors, aviators and Marines since the Vietnam War, was decommissioned Thursday after 32 years of service.
The Navy plans to tow the helicopter carrier to Philadelphia, where it will be towed out to sea, used for target practice and sunk. Navy officials described the finale as appropriate for an old warrior.
The Inchon was named after a historic amphibious landing led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Commissioned on June 20, 1970, the ship stirs strong emotions among current and past crewmembers, many of whom attended the ceremony at Naval Station Ingleside.
Bobby Henson, 53, was assigned to the Inchon in July 1973 as an electronics technician, and he drove with his wife, Margaret, from North Carolina to see the ship for the last time.
Standing in a dark hangar bay nestled in the depths of the ship, Henson was asked how it felt to be back. He clamped his hand over his mouth and tears welled in his eyes.
“It was my home for four years,” Henson said. “It’s sort of like losing a friend.”
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jim Ward, based in Fort Worth, served on the Inchon during its early days and brought a camera to document its final days.
“I’m here to pay my respects,” said Ward, 54, who is now a Navy counselor. Gazing up at the big gray ship, he recalled countless shifts spent on watch duty, making sure the Inchon avoided water hazards.
The Inchon was the pillar of the Navy’s Mine Warfare Command, which is based in Corpus Christi. Its Sea Dragon helicopters swept ocean waters for mines, and it supported smaller vessels that specialize in mine hunting and countermeasures.
The Inchon, originally built as an amphibious landing support ship, was overhauled in 1995 for a new mission in mine warfare. The military spent more than $120 million on the Inchon’s new capabilities, and estimated at that time that the ship could serve another decade.
But rising maintenance costs and an engine room fire last year cut short the Inchon’s commission.
Damage from the fire would have cost $10 million to repair, and the Inchon was already running the Navy $40 million a year to operate.
Texas lawmakers are openly worried that the loss of the Inchon could make the Ingleside facility vulnerable to an upcoming 2005 round of base closures.
“My concern is that the Inchon was home to about 700 naval personnel, and the Navy has not yet made the final decision on what the successor to the Inchon will be,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. The ship’s crew have been assigned to other Navy posts.
The Navy’s presence in Ingleside has buttressed the economic structure of the town and surrounding communities.
The Navy’s decommissioning ceremony offered a promising outlook, albeit distant , for local leaders who want to keep a strong Navy presence in the Coastal Bend.
Vice Adm. Albert H. Konetzni Jr., deputy and chief of staff for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, told sailors and their families that the Navy envisions a faster, sleeker version of the Inchon. The vessel of the future would employ robotic hunter-killer devices that detonate mines without putting crewmembers at risk.
The Navy could lease such a test ship, based at Ingleside, for $20 million a year. But it could be at least seven years before that happens, Konetzni said.
The Inchon, which has its own association of former crew members who keep in touch on the Internet, has been all over the world. The ship assisted evacuations during the Libyan civil war in 1990, and it was assigned to operations off the coasts of Haiti and Somalia.
In 1999, the Inchon deployed in Operation Shining Hope, providing humanitarian relief for Kosovar refugees in the Balkans.
Its final deployment was April 2001 in a mine training exercise in the western Pacific. The mission took it through the Panama Canal on a journey of 28,000 nautical miles to conduct successful training missions with U.S. allies.
The ship itself is simply bolts and metal, Navy officers said. The Inchon’s crew gave it life.
“With her goes a part of our lives and a part of our accomplishments,” said Capt. Charles Smith, commanding officer of the Inchon.
jtedesco @ express-news.net
Gary Martin of the Express-News Washington Bureau contributed to this report.