Former sailor to attend USS J.F.K. decommissioning

March 21, 2007|By KAREN HANNA


As the USS John F. Kennedy first took to the high seas, 21-year-old U.S. Navy signalman Gary Rohrer was collecting keepsakes - newspaper clippings, badges, photographs, the tattered remains of the first admiral's flag to fly above the aircraft carrier.

He sent his parents an envelope stamped on the front with news of the ship's commissioning into service. On the back, he wrote, "Do not open or throw away."

"When you're part of something, when you're part of something that's just so special, like the commissioning of a ship, it stays with you forever," said Rohrer, who recently turned 60.


Rohrer, who is Washington County's director of special projects, credits the Navy with instilling in him discipline and direction. On Wednesday, he flew to Florida to pay homage to that influence by attending Friday's decommissioning of the USS J.F.K., one of the country's last conventionally powered aircraft carriers.

"It's kind of like a pilgrimage. You have this unique experience when you're 21 years old, and all of sudden your dad calls you and says, 'Hey, you're really getting old. They're decommissioning your ship,'" Rohrer said.

Rohrer said he sailed with the USS J.F.K. after stints on other ships.

"I had been on destroyers and several other vessels before, but this was the first ship I ever felt at home," Rohrer said.

Members of that first crew are known as plank owners - according to seagoing tradition, the first sailors of a new ship got planks as mementos - and Rohrer said they were treated like celebrities by people who saw their ship badges.

Rohrer still has a plaque he received for his "plank-owner" service on the USS J.F.K. The plaque was made from wood used for scaffolding at the shipyard where the USS J.F.K. was built, he said.

In its time, the USS J.F.K. was a modern marvel, Rohrer said. Former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and U.S. Secretary of State Robert S. McNamera spoke at its commissioning Sept. 7, 1968, according to one of two programs Rohrer kept. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, christened the ship.

Taped inside the program is a newspaper clipping announcing Rohrer's ship assignment.

Rohrer said being in the Navy changed him. Just waiting with other sailors to go ashore made him appreciate the importance of hard work and education. The first sailors to leave ship were the ones with rank, Rohrer said.

Rohrer, who left the Navy as a signalman 2nd class after six years of active and reserve duty, said he is sorry the draft is no longer in effect. He joined the Navy to honor family tradition - his father was a Seabee in World War II, and three uncles also were sailors. He said he likely would have been drafted, if he had not enlisted.

"The Navy taught me discipline, it definitely taught me discipline," Rohrer said. "It was just a discipline or a breaking of your will and learning to do things their way, taking orders and directions."

Rohrer, who can still identify the faces of his old buddies on black-and-white photographs, said he understands time marches on, but the ship's commissioning is bittersweet.

"It will be the end of an era, obviously, but tearfully? I don't think so. It just a part of life. I mean things get old, and they need to be replaced. It's just progress," Rohrer said.

To learn more about the USS John F. Kennnedy, go to

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