Thousands of sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson jubilantly returned to their home port Wednesday, four days before Father's Day and nearly seven weeks after the ship carried Osama bin Laden's body to a burial at sea.
Jim Rhoades, who came from Philadelphia to greet his son, held a sign that read: "Mission Impossible: This Time for Real," a reference to President George W. Bush's 2003 speech at the same location after the invasion of Iraq. The sign featured a photo of bin Laden with red X's over his eyes.
"It just says that these guys have done well," said Rhoades, 50. "They deserve credit."
The USS Carl Vinson was in the North Arabian Sea on May 2 when it received a Navy SEAL team carrying the al-Qaida leader's body. The body was placed in a weighted bag, an officer made religious remarks, and it was dropped into the sea.
Sailors have been ordered to avoid talking about the operation. Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, the Vinson strike group commander, relented only slightly when asked to describe sailors' morale in early May.
"I think everybody was pretty stoked," Perez told reporters. "I think that first week of May everybody was sitting there looking around very proud to have been part of that piece of history."
Several thousand family members and friends cheered and waved American flags and "Welcome Home" signs as the carrier arrived at Naval Base Coronado from its six-month deployment — a far higher turnout than a typical homecoming. There were five live bands, compared to the usual one or two when carriers return.
About 5,000 sailors, pilots and crew members walked off the ship with hundreds of family members who were invited for the final leg from Hawaii. One father hugged his newborn son for the first time.
Security was tight but not unusual. Family and friends were questioned at the gate and walked through metal detectors before approaching the ship.
Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Ray of Lewiston, Maine, was greeted by his wife and two young children, dressed in red, white and blue.
"We were able to go out there and accomplish our mission," he said. "We met or exceeded every goal we were supposed to meet."