When Machinist Mate George J. Nastav first saw the USS Princeton in 1949 in Bremerton, Wash., it was stripped down to the shell of an aircraft carrier as if it had just come off the line at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Its stay in mothballs had left it in bad condition. It was stripped of all furnishings, its insulation had absorbed moisture, and all the gaskets had been taken out of its engine room. By time it was recommissioned on Aug. 28, 1950, Nastav and his fellow sailors had made it battle-ready to serve in the Korean War which broke out two months before.
“The sooner you got it ready, the better. When you finished in one department, they’d send you to another,” said the longtime Whiting resident, who would call the carrier home for the next three years.
Rear Adm. Dan Gallery, famous for capturing the U-505 German submarine in World War II, commanded Carrier Division Six as the Princeton steamed into the war zone Dec. 5, 1950.
Deployed off the coast, pilots flew 248 sorties from the Princeton’s flight deck against targets to support Marines fighting in the Chosin Reservoir area.
Not all the pilots made it back safely. Nastav remembers one plane coming in too low, bursting into flames when it hit the ship's fantail. A crew mate aboard ship was badly burned.
The charred flesh on his fingers had to be cut to separate them for rehab, Nastav recalled. Unfortunately, no one on the ship knew enough Ukrainian to write his mother to tell her what happened.
Members of the Blue Angels, the precision flying team which was disbanded at the start of the war, were part of the VF-191, Satan's Kittens, aboard the Princeton. Mostly, the ship's crew shared in the pilots' successes, which included knocking out a hydro-electric dam and the demise of "Bed-check Charlie," a Korean pilot in a slow plane who strafed U.N. forces in the late evening.
"Because he (a carrier pilot) was flying a Corsair ... and it was the only (propeller) plane that could go slow enough to catch him, he became a hero," Nastav said.
Two typhoons also menaced the carrier, with one storm's swells so high they washed over the flight deck. A handful of sailors were lost over the years when they either fell or were swept overboard, Nastav said.
The machinist spent much of his time below decks in the engine room, changing zinc plates, inspecting the engines for wear and changing fluids in what was about 80-degree heat since the boiler room was adjoining.
When the war ended, the Princeton returned to San Diego, where it ultimately played a role in the Vietnam War before it was sold for scrap in 1971.
Nastav went back to Whiting, eventually finding a job at Inland Steel, where he worked for 31 years.
"I learned how to take care of myself in the service," said Nastav, a widower who still cooks for himself and irons his shirts. "I'd tell young people, 'When you go into the service, give it everything you've got and you'll come out all right.'"