Vietnam War Commemoration Commission

Week of December 3

On December 2, 1965, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) became the first nuclear-powered carrier in history to engage in combat operations when the ship, at Dixie Station off the coast of southern South Vietnam, launched 21 aircraft to conduct a strike against a concentration of Việt Cộng installations near Biên Hòa, just outside Sài Gòn. The Enterprise launched a total of 125 sorties against Communist installations in South Vietnam that day, followed by another 131 sorties on December 3.

Nicknamed “The Big E,” the Enterprise was at the cutting edge of naval warfare technology in 1965. The vessel was over 1,100 feet long and 250 feet wide. Using nuclear reactors to generate propulsion, the carrier could reach speeds of over 30 knots. It boasted a complement of 4,600 men, and its air arm included dozens of F-8 Crusaders, F-4 Phantoms, A-1 Skyraiders, and A-4 Skyhawks, among numerous other rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. The Enterprise was launched in September 1960 and it served around the world before being deployed to the Biển Đông (South China Sea) in November 1965. It launched its first strike in Vietnamese waters on the same day it reached Dixie Station, December 2, 1965, after which it’s crew and aviators participated in numerous combat operations—including Operation ROLLING THUNDER.

The Enterprise served in Vietnamese waters for the majority of the war. After the United States agreed to a ceasefire with North Vietnam in early 1973, the vessel remained on station until May as its aircraft continued to strike targets in Laos and Cambodia. The ship returned to Vietnam yet again in April 1975 to assist with Operation FREQUENT WIND, the final evacuation of Americans and foreign nationals from Sài Gòn before its fall to the North Vietnamese Army.

The nuclear-powered Enterprise was in fact the eighth American vessel to go by that name. The first Enterprise was a sloop, originally a British supply ship, captured by Continental Army forces under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold on Lake Champlain in May 1775. Subsequent Enterprises served the United States in the Barbary Wars, the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, and World War I. The seventh Enterprise served proudly in the Pacific against the Imperial Japanese Navy, most famously in the battle of Midway in June 1942, one of the most crucial and decisive battles of World War II.

After the Vietnam War, the eighth vessel to be named Enterprise remained in service, with numerous upgrades and refits, until 2012, when the Navy inactivated the carrier. After becoming the first nuclear carrier to engage in combat, the Enterprise also became the first one to be decommissioned. The U.S. Navy currently has plans for a ninth Enterprise, a Ford-class aircraft carrier to be completed in 2025.1

1Most of the vessel information contained here appears under “Enterprise” in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/e/enterprise-cvan-65-viii-1961-1965.html(accessed 12/1/15). Another source is James Holloway III, Aircraft Carriers at War: A Personal Retrospective of Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet Confrontation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 153, 190–91.

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