Petty Officer 3rd Class John Bekken stood on the flight deck of the Yorktown Friday afternoon, marveling at the historic aircraft carrier while he washed an old fighter jet.

Bekken was one of 450 students from the Navy's Nuclear Power Training Unit in Goose Creek volunteering at Patriots Point for the Day of Caring, an annual day of service organized by Trident United Way. Groups of sailors touched up the ship's paint job, dusted off airplanes, hauled away unneeded equipment and other maintenance tasks.

For Bekken, who's been stationed here less than a year and is training for his first deployment, every opportunity to be aboard a ship like the Yorktown is a small glimpse into what life will be like and a look at the nation's wartime history.

"This is where we started," he said. "It feels good."

The Nuclear Power Training Unit trains enlisted sailors and officers on how to operate and maintain the nuclear reactors that power ships and submarines, as well as training civilians who work at two government-run nuclear laboratories.

Each year the program sends hundreds of its sailors to volunteer at the Yorktown and in the rest of the museum facility, said Chris Hauff, a Patriots Point spokesman.

"We're limited on the amount of people who work here," Hauff said. "There's always projects we'd like to see get done, and to have 450 extra pairs hands to do things we can knock things out."

This year's Day of Caring coincided with a reunion and day of service for members of the USS Laffey Association — the Laffey is a destroyer that's also moored at Patriots Point — who got extra help from the young sailors to keep the World War II-era ship in top condition.

"They're staying on the ship at night and during the day they're up there painting and doing all sorts of things making sure the Laffey stays restored," Hauff said.

Richard Felsinger, a Mount Pleasant resident who served as a weapons officer and an operations officer aboard the Laffey from 1968-70, said spending the day working with the young sailors was a great experience.

"I think it's fantastic," Felsinger said. "Many times they're seeing a ship, certainly a destroyer, for the first time. It's really good to have them come aboard and help out. They seem to be very good, can-do attitude. They are the future and they'll remember this for a long time."

Veterans with the Laffey Association take pride in their "hard-steaming" ship, he said, adding that he's thankful to have the ship he served aboard so close to home.

Jack Keller, a Navy veteran who served on the USS Robert A. Owens from 1954-56 as a first lieutenant, was visiting the Yorktown Friday and said he was excited to see the young sailors volunteering their time.

Keller, a Hilton Head resident, said he was pleased to see the diversity in the ranks and young people giving their time.

"Seeing these young service people is so impressive," he said.

The work done at Patriots Point, however, is only one part of a larger volunteer event. The Day of Caring is the tri-county area's largest day of service, benefiting 165 nonprofits and schools, according to Trident United Way. More than 5,000 volunteers from 144 companies participated, donating 26,200 hours of service on 275 projects.

Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Jenning, who oversaw the nuclear school students Friday afternoon, said that spirit of service is what makes the Day of Caring so special to the Navy.

The students typically spend 65 to 80 hours a week between classroom time and other training, Jenning said. All the training time means there's little left for anything else.

"Most of these students joined with the intent to serve," he said. "This is a great opportunity to get in touch with the service side."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.