Kitty Hawk returns to home port

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 6, 2003

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan (AP) - 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 a boisterous welcome Tuesday.

Based at this former Japanese Imperial Navy stronghold just south of Tokyo, the Kitty Hawk is one of the first aircraft carriers to return from the Iraq war.

For most aboard, it wasn't a day too soon.

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''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. 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.