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|#2364 2008-04-08 GMT-5 hours|
CVN-73 USS George Washington leaves Norfolk for its new home in Japan
By Matthew Jones
© April 8, 2008
The George Washington got under way from Pier 14 at Norfolk Naval Station late Monday morning, bound for its new home in Yokosuka, Japan, as a small, dedicated group of well-wishers waved to it through the whirling drizzle and a fog right out of central casting.
The aircraft carrier's move comes as the Navy looks to improve its reach in the western Pacific.
Its final stop will place the nuclear-powered ship in the only country ever to be attacked by nuclear weapons. It also will arrive at a time when arrests of American service members have cooled the Japanese view of the U.S. military.
The diplomacy required to address these issues began on the pier Monday, as Navy brass fielded questions from journalists, many from Japan.
Rear Adm. Philip Cullom, commander of the George Washington strike group, spoke of the key role the carrier will play once it joins the Seventh Fleet.
The newer, faster ship replaces the conventionally powered Kitty Hawk and is expected to provide better regional security. As for any nuclear dangers, Capt. Dave Dykhoff, the ship's commanding officer, was reassuring.
"I think the concerns about nuclear power are unfounded," he said. "We have the tightest nuclear program in the world."
Since 2005, when the Japanese government accepted the Navy's request to replace the Kitty Hawk, the U.S. government has had to carefully consider its successor.
All of the other carriers - except the Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan - held a negative association for the Japanese, most related to World War II.
The choice of the George Washington hasn't completely defused the controversy. A group in Yokosuka is trying to keep the ship from docking there.
The George Washington has always been homeported in Norfolk, and its loss brings the region to four carriers. This means a loss of roughly 3,200 local jobs, which, according to local economists, means about $430 million annually.
En route to Japan, the ship heads to Rio de Janeiro, where it will participate in an exercise with forces from Brazil and Argentina. From there, it continues to Valparaiso, Chile, then San Diego, Honolulu and Guam before reaching Yokosuka.
While the ship is under way, sailors will receive cultural and language training to ready them for life in Japan.
"We will endeavor to show them what good citizens we are," Dykhoff said.
Some 200 to 300 families will be relocating to Japan as part of the carrier move.
Stacy Powell plans to move herself and two children from Atlanta to Yokosuka in May, to be with husband and father Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Powell.
The family will be there at least three years.
The couple's 11-year-old daughter, Justice, is ready to go. "I'm not sad about leaving," she said.
Powell shares her daughter's anticipation and has no concerns "other than finding some clothes that fit on these long legs," she said, laughing.
The biggest cheering section was for Seaman Brian Gartee of Chesapeake, whose departure brought out his wife, Eugenia, her parents, sisters, friends and the couple's 13-month-old daughter, Mya. All waved neon farewell signs.
Eugenia Gartee played the good spouse to the end, talking to her husband on her cell phone as she waved at the small white-capped head far above. And as the ship's departure drew nigh and the sailors emerged to man the rails, she was able to tell him to go get in line.
The ship's lines were freed just before 11 a.m., and two tugs slid into place behind it. A Navy band struck up a tune to push back the rain, and the carrier got under way.
Within five minutes, the George Washington was out of the pier and turning toward the Chesapeake Bay. In another five, it had slipped into the fog.
Gray on gray, it disappeared.