Bittersweet Return Of USS Nassau

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd class Julio Cortez gets a kiss from his wife Sandra as he returns with the USS Nassau to Norfolk Naval Station, Va. Thursday, May 29, 2003. The ship was returning from a nine month deployment.
The USS Nassau returned Thursday to Norfolk Naval Station after a nine-month deployment, but the joy of homecoming was tempered by the recent loss of two of the ship's 1,000 sailors.

Petty Officer 1st Class Shaun Dale of Newport News did not appear at a roll call Sunday morning and is considered missing while the Navy investigates.

Just days earlier, Petty Officer 3rd Class Dwayne Williams, 23, of Philadelphia tripped and fell from the Nassau while chasing a football, officials said. He is presumed dead. The ship was 900 miles off the Virginia coast.

A crowd of more than 1,000 cheered as the ship blew its whistle and pulled alongside the pier before 9:30 a.m. Sailors wearing dress white uniforms manned the rails and the Nassau flew a 400-foot-long red, white and blue pennant.

Williams' family met the ship in Norfolk and planned to talk to the commanding officer and hear from sailors who witnessed his fall. It was unclear whether Dale's wife, Alma, was at the Navy base.

Willie Jackson had his arms full with balloons reading Welcome Home, Happy Valentine's Day, Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary — events that his wife, Yeoman Katina Jackson, had missed during the lengthy deployment.

"They're in the past. But she's coming home," said Jackson, a petty officer 2nd class stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. "That woman is my soul."

Relatives and friends of the returning sailors said they were sad for the families of the two sailors lost aboard the Nassau.

"They survived a war and everything they went through, then to be so close to home and not make it — it's sad," said Jeri Ward, sister of Senior Chief Del Dunbar.

The Nassau, an 833-foot amphibious assault ship, is the lead ship of a three-ship group that supported the Iraq war. The ships dropped off equipment and about 2,200 Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on Monday, then headed to Virginia.

The amphibious transport dock ship USS Austin also was to return to Norfolk Naval Station, while the amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga was to return to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach.

Also returning to Norfolk on Thursday were about 6,000 sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and three smaller ships in its strike group, the guided missile cruiser USS Cape St. George, the guided missile destroyer USS Winston Churchill and the guided missile frigate USS Carr.