When Shipfitter John Harrell started working at Newport News Shipbuilding in 1974, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) was under construction. He thought he would work long enough to buy a car. Forty years and 11 cars later, he’s a Master Shipbuilder building the first ship in a new class – the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). And while the names of the aircraft carriers have changed, his daily routine hasn’t. At 3:30 a.m., the North Carolinian boards a bus and travels 93 miles to the shipyard. After walking through the gates, the 59-year-old shipfitter maneuvers gangways and climbs a series of ladders onboard the new carrier, before crawling into some of the dark and confined spaces or compartments where his work begins. “I come here every morning and I’m happy,” he said. “It’s hard work, but it’s work that matters. “The ship is like a giant puzzle. You have to figure out how each part fits. Sometimes the pieces fit perfectly. Sometimes, you have to take the pieces apart or cut them in half to fit them into tighter spaces.” Growing up on a farm in North Carolina, Harrell learned the value of hard work at an early age. His father died when he was 11, leaving him to take care of his nine brothers and sisters. Now, it’s his mission to look after his fellow shipbuilders.
Whenever he can, he spends time guiding younger shipfitters. “Over the years, I’ve realized that there’s always something new to learn. Now I want to help the younger shipbuilders and pass on everything I’ve learned.” But he admits that mentoring today’s shipbuilders is not always easy. “This new generation of shipfitters wants to dive right in to the work, but it takes time to learn how to read construction maps. There aren’t any computers onboard the ship, and that’s what the younger guys are used to. If they’re at home and can’t figure something out, they can always look at YouTube. This is real work with our hands.” And shipbuilders have reason to listen to him. In his 40 years at the shipyard, Harrell has not had a single injury. “You have to keep your eyes open at all times and be aware of your surroundings. You have to be really involved in the job.” At the end of the day, when the bus returns him to his home in Windsor, the sun has already set. Still, he says that he can’t help but be proud of the work he and his fellow shipbuilders have accomplished. I By Jeremy Bustin
Master Shipbuilder John “Cheese” Harrell takes measurements on Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) flight deck before installing T-bar structures. Photo by Ricky Thompson
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