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Thousands bid farewell as Big John is decommissioned in Fla.

MAYPORT, Fla. -- The first skipper of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy was surrounded yesterday by shipmates wanting an autograph, a picture, or just a chance to talk about old times.

But for Admiral Earl P. Yates, the ship's captain from 1968 to 1969, the decommissioning of "Big John" after nearly 40 years of service was sad.

"I feel like crying," he said.

Yates was among 19 of 29 former Kennedy captains who attended the ceremony presided over by the final skipper, Captain Todd Zecchin. The event ended with the lowering of the ship's flag and more than 2,000 sailors in dress blues marching off for the last time.

"What a bittersweet day. It is a glorious breath of life we've filled the ship with," Zecchin told about 7,000 former crew members and military dignitaries gathered at Mayport Naval Station, the carrier's home port the last 12 years.

The Kennedy looked as if it had just come from the shipyard, its gray paint gleaming and its top encircled by red, white, and blue bunting.

The ship was active in both Iraq wars and launched aircraft into hot spots around the globe . At 1,050 feet long, it once carried a crew of about 4,600 and 70 combat aircraft. Its decommissioning crew was about 2,800.

Zecchin called the crew "a profile in courage," a reference to President Kennedy's Pulitzer-prize winning book, "Profiles in Courage."

None of the Kennedy family attended the ceremony. They said their goodbyes during a port visit to Boston about three weeks ago.

The Kennedy entered Navy service in September 1968, more than a year after it was christened by the slain president's then-9-year-old daughter, Caroline. Its in-port cabin was designed by his widow, Jacqueline, and is the only room on a Navy ship with wood paneling, officials said. One of its paintings shows the president sailing with his daughter.

The cabin will go to a Navy museum. The carrier will be towed to Philadelphia, where it will be placed on inactive status.

For more information, visit the USS John F. Kennedy website: .