The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ended its remarkable career 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. Countless personal photos were taken on board as the ship neared 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.
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The Enterprise’s final deployment was no 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.
The Enterprise has been a frequent traveler to the Middle East. 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.
A 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.
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.
The ship is the second-oldest in the Navy after the USS Constitution; its age has frequently shown. Sailors on the Enterprise have a saying: “There’s tough, then there’s Enterprise tough.”