Photo courtesy of Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Some liken sporting events to wars and battles, but the USS Yorktown has seen and fought in the real thing.
Sport will converge with the Yorktown, a decommissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, when the Ohio State men’s and women’s basketball teams will open their 2012-13 seasons against Marquette and Notre Dame, respectively, Friday in the Carrier Classic.
Friday’s games, which will take place on a court constructed on the Yorktown’s flight deck, bare no likeness to the battles the warship has seen. Still, OSU coach Thad Matta has an appreciation for the venue’s history.
The OSU teams and their opponents’ stay on the ship will last for the duration of the 40-minute basketball games. Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Dorsey, 73, of Milton, Fla., recalled that a typical stay as a sailor on the Yorktown was much longer.
Unlike for the basketball teams, a “short” stay, or cruise, on the ship would last six to nine weeks. Long cruises could last six to nine months, and the cruises weren’t for basketball games or other forms of pleasure, but for war.
Dorsey, a former helicopter pilot and President of the Yorktown Association, was stationed on the Yorktown from 1963-1966 and was twice deployed to Vietnam and the South China Sea. Following World War II, during which the ship faced bombings and other forms of heavy combat, the Yorktown was modified for rooting out the Soviet submarine threat during the Cold War.
When it became evident that there was no threat of Soviet submarines in the seas near Vietnam, Dorsey’s mission changed, he said.
“We were doing basic utility work, moving men and cargo from different ships in the South China Sea,” Dorsey said. “We were also doing what was considered coastal surveillance. They would send us out to investigate various shipboard targets that they would pick up on our radar and we would fly out to sea if there was a threat. And so that was our primary mission.”
Then, the mission changed again once Vietnam “was going pretty big,” Dorsey said.
“A lot of (planes) got shot down, so our mission really changed to being combat rescue,” Dorsey said. “During all that time, we never lost a single helicopter due to combat loss, which was pretty spectacular.”
And there were many missions that launched on the sea and saw Dorsey and other members of America venture into Vietnamese airspace.
The missions, while thrilling, Dorsey said, were exceedingly dangerous and included night missions at low altitude.
“You know, flying off an aircraft carrier is probably one of the most exciting things most people ever do, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Dorsey said. “We did a lot of night flying, which was fairly dangerous … generally, helicopters were limited to a maximum altitude of 200 feet. So on a dark night at 200-feet, you really better pay attention.”
Obviously, OSU won’t face dangers like what Dorsey saw. The biggest risk the two Buckeyes’ squads run on Friday is starting their respective seasons with a loss.
For the men’s team, it would be the first opening-game loss since a 76-65 defeat to San Francisco on Nov. 21, 2003. OSU women’s coach Jim Foster has never lost a season opener since arriving in Columbus for the 2002-03 campaign.
Given the Buckeyes teams’ history of opening-night success, some fans in Columbus might be disappointed to miss the opener. The Carrier Classic will take place in Charleston, S.C., some 10 hours from Columbus by car.
Buckeye Nation will get to see its team play live at the Schottenstein Center again, though. They will return home. In combat on the Yorktown, Dorsey obviously couldn’t make the same guarantee.
“As Navy sailors do,” Dorsey said, “you tell your family, ‘Goodbye. I’ll see you when I get back.'”
Matta conveyed appreciation for the sacrifice of the Yorktown’s crews during OSU’s Oct. 11 media day.
“(The Carrier Classic is) something that these young men, for the rest of their lives, will remember,” Matta said. “Obviously I want to win the basketball game, but that is one game that is more than the game of basketball. People forget we got guys fighting the war for us right now.”
OSU women’s basketball is scheduled to tip off its Carrier Classic game against Notre Dame at 4 p.m. on Friday. The OSU men will tip off against Marquette at 7 p.m.
Yorktown takes a starring role
The Yorktown has enjoyed Hollywood limelight in her day, having served at the movie set for the movies “The Fighting Lady” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970). She was also featured in the TV series “Get Smart” (1968) and on the SyFy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” (2012).
Yorktown aids in space exploration
On Dec. 27, 1968, the Yorktown recovered the astronauts aboard NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft, the first manned spacecraft to travel to the vicinity of Earth’s moon and return safely, according to a Carrier Classic release. Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders splashed down in the Pacific Ocean before a Yorktown helicopter arrived to scoop the astronauts out of the ocean.
Michael Periatt contributed to this article.