The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ended its remarkable career at sea on Sunday when it pulled into its home port for the final time after participating in every major conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The USS Enterprise began shutting down its eight nuclear reactors almost as soon as it arrived at its pier at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, where thousands of cheering family members and friends welcomed the ship home from its 25th and final deployment after nearly eight months at sea. The ship will never move on its own power again and will eventually be scrapped in Washington state, making its final voyage a sentimental one for those who have sailed aboard "The Big E."
Copies of the ship's daily newspaper, "The Shuttle," were in short supply as sailors looked for memorabilia to take with them. Countless personal photos were taken by sailors throughout the ship as it approached shore.
"It's exceptionally emotional and exceptionally satisfying," Rear Adm. Ted Carter, commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, said as Naval Station Norfolk came into view and his sailors manned the rails.
However, Carter is the first to say that the Enterprise's final deployment was anything but a sentimental victory lap. The ships' fighter planes flew more than 2,200 combat sorties and dropped 56 bombs in Afghanistan while supporting U.S. and international ground troops. In a show of force to Iran, the ship also passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz 10 times, a figure that Carter said is more than double the typical amount.
The Enterprise has been a frequent traveler to the Middle East over its career. It was the first nuclear-powered carrier to transit through the Suez Canal in 1986, and it was the first carrier to respond following the Sept. 11 attacks, changing course overnight to head to the Arabian Sea.
An entire room on the ship serves as a museum to its history, which includes a large photo of the burning Twin Towers placed in a timeline that wraps around a wall.
The Navy will officially deactivate the Enterprise on Dec. 1, but it will take several more years for it to be decommissioned as its reactors are taken out. About 15,000 people are expected to attend the deactivation ceremony, which will be its last public ceremony after several days of tours for former crew members.
Those who have served on the ship have a unique camaraderie. It is the second-oldest ship in the Navy after the USS Constitution, and its age has frequently shown. Sailors who work on the Enterprise have a saying: "There's tough, then there's Enterprise tough."
Things frequently break down, and spare parts for a ship that's the only one in its class aren't made anymore.
"She's just old, so you got to work around her," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Almaraz, an electronic technician. "We have to make our own parts sometimes because it just doesn't exist."
Those deployed on the Enterprise knew life wouldn't be easy at sea, a fact highlighted last year when former commanding officer Capt. Owen Honors was fired for airing raunchy videos that he said were intended to boost morale. During a hearing in which Honors was trying to avoid being kicked out of the Navy, he and his lawyers frequently referenced the difficult conditions on board. Honors was found to have committed misconduct, but ultimately allowed to stay in the service. He is retiring in April.
Some of the ship's original crewmembers from 51 years ago — known as plank owners — were among the 1,500 civilians who joined the Enterprise for its last two days at sea, known as a Tiger Cruise.
"This is the end of an era that I helped start, so I was just honored that the captain invited me on board. There's no way I'd turn that down," said original crew member Ray Godfrey of Colorado Springs, Colo.
The aircraft carrier is the eighth U.S. ship to bear the name Enterprise, with the first one being confiscated from the British by Benedict Arnold in 1775. Current sailors and alumni like Godfrey are lobbying to have a future carrier also named Enterprise. The ship's crew created a time capsule to be passed along to each Navy secretary until a new ship carries its name.
Other memorabilia on the ship, such as a pair of black fuzzy dice that hang in the ship's tower that were donated by the film crew of the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster movie "Top Gun," will be stored by the Naval History and Heritage Command.
USS Enterprise http://www.enterprise.navy.mil/
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis