More than 100 supporters greeted the USS Carl Vinson as it returned from a deployment that became historic last month when the aircraft carrier picked up a team of Navy SEALs carrying the body of Osama bin Laden and buried the terror leader at sea.
The ship arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday, making its first stop on U.S. soil since its six-month deployment to waters in and around the Middle East and the Western Pacific. The Vinson is making a three-day stop in Pearl Harbor before heading home to San Diego — where it is expected to be met with a much larger greeting.
There had not been much fanfare preceding the ship's arrival. The media was alerted only a day before the Vinson pulled into port. And Navy officials advised reporters that senior officers wouldn't talk much about bin Laden or disclose new details of the burial.
"Our crew has taken it with the solemnity that was required and they conducted that mission in a manner that I think brings pride and credit to the United States," said Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, who commands the Navy team of ships and aircraft that the Vinson leads.
The Vinson was in the North Arabian Sea in early May when it received a Navy SEAL team carrying the body of the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Pentagon officials speaking about the burial have said that bin Laden's body was placed in a weighted bag on the carrier and that an officer made religious remarks before the remains were put on a board and tipped into the sea.
Perez said the burial symbolized different things for each sailor.
"For some, it's just another mission. For others that had more personal ties to Sept. 11, I think it had a deeper meaning," he said. "That's just something that each of us has to wrap our arms around individually."
'A privilege they chose us'
Perez said he was at the Pentagon when it was attacked, making this deployment an interesting bookend to his career.
"It's a privilege they chose us for that mission," he said. "It's just something special. I will remember it for a long time."
Most sailors were reluctant to talk about the ship's connection to the world's most wanted terrorist. But others expressed appreciation for the role their deployment played in U.S. history.
"I can honestly say I'm proud of that. I am proud of that," said Chief Petty Officer Michael Norman, of Chicago, who was on his last deployment and is retiring next year after 20 years in the Navy.
Under a light drizzle, the sailors were warmly greeted by friends and family with applause, colorful leis, hugs and tears as they disembarked from the ship.
"It's a big relief they're home. We get to see them. We actually get to hold them and make sure that they're all right. We get to physically see that they're OK," said Judy Crow, who was anxiously awaiting her husband Petty Officer 1st Class Vincent Crow, of Cleburne, Texas.
Several Navy wives including Crow said they were so proud of their husbands, but the bin Laden burial also had them shaken, fearing the ship would be a possible target for terrorists.
"When I first heard about it, I was pretty scared because terrorists are known for retaliation," she said. "A lot of families were worried."
The massive carrier, nearly four football fields long with a flight deck spanning 4.5 acres, and its 5,500 sailors, pilots and crew were returning home from their deployment to the Middle East and Asia that began Nov. 30. It also conducted exercises with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Britain, France and Australia in addition to responding to two piracy attempts on civilian vessels.
The carrier hosted numerous visitors from Philippines President Philippines Benigno Aquino III to the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
The ship is expected to leave Pearl Harbor on Friday. It typically takes three days to sail to San Diego from Hawaii, but the Navy hasn't disclosed details of the arrival.
There is expected to be a larger greeting when it returns to its home port in San Diego.
The USS Carl Vinson is named after the Georgia congressman who died in 1981.