CBSN

U.S. Aircraft Carriers Returning Home

MACM Francisco Garcia of Brooklyn, New York, center, hugs his daughter, Dinayda, left, and his son upon his arrival aboard the USS Kitty Hawk at its home port in Yokosuka, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) south of Tokyo, Tuesday, May 6, 2003. Thousands of family members lined the piers of the U.S. naval base to welcome home the aircraft carrier, which returned after a four-month deployment in support of the war in Iraq. The son's name was not given.
AP
Two U.S. aircraft carriers and ships from their battle groups were returning to their homeports Tuesday.

After more than 100 days at sea, the launching of more than 5,300 sorties and the loss of just one pilot, the USS Kitty Hawk and a pair of ships from its battle group returned home to its base at a former Japanese Imperial Navy stronghold just south of Tokyo.

After nearly 10 months at sea, the USS Abraham Lincoln entered the last leg of its long trip home to Everett, Wash.

About 3,500 sailors on board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Lincoln were scheduled to dock around 10 a.m. PDT at Naval Station Everett, where thousands of family members and well-wishers planned to celebrate their arrival.

Local motels are filled and rental cars are scarce there, reports CBS News Correspondent Stephan Kaufman, as the families in town wait for their soon-to-take-place reunions with loved ones. The partying began Monday, with the Navy giving family members a free pizza party, accompanied by a mariachi band.

"He's been out there for eight or nine months. I miss him a whole lot," said 12-year-old Marcus Brooks, who plans to give his father some orders of his own. "I'm going to say 'Don't leave any more. If you do, make it only two weeks.'"

Paula Hawley plans another message for her son: '"I'm so proud of you' and I'll give him a big kiss on the cheek if he'll let me," she told Kaufman.

The Kitty Hawk was one of the first aircraft carriers to return from the Iraq war to its homeport in Japan. For most aboard, it wasn't a day too soon.

"Words cannot express how good it feels to be back," said Seaman David Espinosa, of Reno, Nevada. "This was my first cruise, so it feels especially a long time to be away from my wife and son."

About 5,000 family members and other well-wishers, many waving small American flags, turned out to welcome the ships back.

Military brass bands played traditional march music for the crowd. A rock band took over as the carrier, as tall as an 11-story building, pulled up to the pier.

For most of the 5,000 or so sailors aboard, the deployment was a first taste of combat.

"It's a relief to be back," said Petty Officer Ryan Belle, of Toledo, Ohio. "It was a hard cruise."

Security around the base was tight. But while protests against the U.S. troops in Japan are common, only a few small protest boats appeared in the harbor.

According to the Navy, in 5,375 sorties and 11,800 flight hours only two aircraft and one pilot were lost from the Kitty Hawk. Officials believe the pilot who was killed was shot down by friendly fire.

Also returning to port Tuesday were the USS Cowpens, a cruiser, and the destroyer USS John S. McCain. Both ships also played an active role in the war. The Cowpens was the first ship to fire Tomahawk missiles from the Arabian Gulf.

"Excited is not the word," said Aubrey Stalcup, from Woodbridge, Va., whose husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Rick Stalcup, returned aboard the McCain. "It's complete euphoria."

The Kitty Hawk and its battle group left port on Jan. 20 and in early February were ordered to join operations in support of the war. Two other ships in the five-vessel force remain deployed.

The 1,100-foot Lincoln left Everett on July 20 for a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf in support of the global war on terrorism. It was headed home in December, then in January, received orders to turn around and head back to the Gulf.

It ended up being one the longest deployments of a nuclear-powered carrier since Vietnam.

During the war in Iraq, more than 1,600 sorties were flown from the Lincoln. The carrier's battle group fired 116 Tomahawk missiles. No aircraft or Navy personnel were lost.

The Lincoln was one of five carrier battle groups that launched air and missile strikes against Iraq during the war. It was relieved by the USS Nimitz on April 10 and renewed its journey home.

President Bush swooped in on an S-3B Viking jet for an on-deck visit with the Lincoln's crew last Thursday, where he declared that the heaviest combat in Iraq was over and called the country's military missions there a success.

The Lincoln docked in San Diego the following day, where about 1,500 sailors got off the ship. It began its journey home to Everett on Saturday.

On board the ship Monday, as cooks were preparing a goodbye meal of T-bone steaks and breaded shrimp, sailors said they could hardly wait to see their families.

"I've had two nieces born and I finally get to meet them," Seaman Apprentice Amanda Harmon, 20, of Cass City, Mich., told The (Everett) Herald as she helped prepare the farewell feast. "I can't wait to see them; my sister asked me if I wanted to be godmother."

Seaman Apprentice Tauwnja Sawyer, 23, said she was looking forward to having some time to herself.

"I'm excited and I'm scared," she said. "I haven't been around civilians in so long, it's weird."

Sawyer won't get to step off the ship on its first day home, since she has extra duties to wrap up. She said she plans to call her family back home in Stillwater, Okla., on Wednesday, then check into a hotel room for some peace and quiet.

The Lincoln's scheduled arrival Tuesday came a day after a supply ship in its battle group, the USS Camden, pulled into its home port in Bremerton.

The other five ships in the Lincoln's battle group also have returned home: the USS Mobile Bay and USS Shiloh, two missile cruisers based in San Diego; as well as the destroyer USS Paul Hamilton, the missle frigate USS Reuben James and the nuclear-powered submarine USS Cheyenne, all based in Pearl Harbor.