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‘Big E' returns home after final deployment

Nov. 4, 2012 - 04:01PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 4, 2012 - 04:01PM  |  
The first kiss winner AT3 David Hyatt kisses his wife Sabrina at the last homecoming of the aircraft carrier Enterprise on Nov. 4 at Naval Station Norfolk.
The first kiss winner AT3 David Hyatt kisses his wife Sabrina at the last homecoming of the aircraft carrier Enterprise on Nov. 4 at Naval Station Norfolk. (Thomas Brown / Navy Times)
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The Enterprise, aka 'Big E,' arrives Nov. 4 during its last homecoming at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. (Thomas Brown / Navy Times)
Sailors aboard the Enterprise wave to family members as they pull into the pier at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. (Thomas Brown / Navy Times)

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION — Chief Quartermaster (SW/AW/SS) Craig Bowman's eight-month cruise ended at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, steps from the brow on Pier 12, where his wife Nancy ran to him with a shriek. The 36-year-old new chief's next hugs belonged to his daughter and son.

Moments after his embrace, Gabriel, Bowman's 10-year old son, said he was "super happy" to have his dad back.

Hugs, tears and high fives filled the packed pier as the aircraft carrier Enterprise returned home Sunday from its 25th — and final — deployment. Pride swelled as the finality of the day hit the crew.

"We just wrote history today," said Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class (SW/AW) Brandon Camby as he walked off the pier. "This is the final cruise. No one will ever man the rails again. It'll never go out again."

Enterprise's homecoming signals the end of an era.

The 51-year-old flattop's legacy stretches back from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to Vietnam. Even before the Southeast Asia conflict, the carrier took part in the Cuban missile crisis when it was part of the blockade that forced the Soviets to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba, ending a tense standoff. The fleet's only active vessel commissioned earlier is the museum ship USS Constitution.

Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and in 1965 became the first of its kind to launch combat airstrikes, then against Vietnam. From the start, "Big E" has played an outsized role for the Navy. Gritty, steam-infused shots of its flight deck were featured in the 1986 hit film "Top Gun" and it was an inspiration for the cosmic flagship in "Star Trek."

The Navy is now preparing to retire this one-of-a-kind ship.

On Dec. 1, the Enterprise will set another first: The first nuclear carrier ever inactivated by the Navy, a years-long process that will require the shipyard to tear through the decks and extract all eight nuclear reactors, a nuclear plant more complex than any before or since. Nimitz-class carriers, by contrast, have only two reactors. This complexity and Big E's age are likely to make the deactivation process expensive and laborious.

"I'm sad it's ending," said Ray Godfrey, a 73-year old former machinist's mate and Enterprise plankowner who rode the ship up from Florida with other vets, as well as family and friends. "Enterprise has done a great job for a long time and its time to retire her with respect."

The supercarrier's cruise racked up successes. They transited the Strait of Hormuz 10 times — double the norm — in a powerful reminder to Iran, which has threatened the critically important strait in recent months. Carrier Air Wing 1 planes flew 2,241 combat missions over Afghanistan and dropped 56 bombs. Enterprise, reputed to be one of the fleet's fastest ships, steamed 80,968 miles in all, according to official deployment figures provided by the ship.

"This is the validation of the first time that we ever had a warship go to 50 years," said Rear Adm. Ted Carter, commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, as he watched the ship drive into Norfolk for the last time from his flag bridge. "And it isn't that she just made it across that finish line.

She made a deployment where she was the most operationally significant and relevant vessel on the water."

With Enterprise's retirement, the flattop fleet drops to 10 hulls. This comes as carrier cruises are surging due to demands that two carriers remain most of the year in 5th Fleet, a level the fleet will maintain at least through March, officials have said. Meanwhile, the Navy will stay below 11 carriers until 2015 at the earliest, when the supercarrier Gerald R. Ford completes construction and arrives in the fleet.

Other things were on the minds of the sailors newly home, many carrying loaded seabags on their backs and scanning the crowd for family and friends. Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Aircraft Handling) 3rd Class (AW/SW) Terell Marshall looked forward to dinner at home with family. And Personnel Specialist Seaman (SW) Shawn Richmond planned to take his four-year-old daughter Kenadi to Chuck E. Cheese's pizzeria.

Asked what was best moment of the deployment, Richmond replied with a laugh, "This part right here," and strode off to find his family.

Enterprise's escort ships also returned home to Norfolk on Sunday: destroyers Nitze, James E. Williams and Porter, the latter of which was damaged in an August collision. Engineers repaired the destroyer in a 7-week-long avail labeled one of the most extensive voyage repairs in Navy history.

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