YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The aircraft carrier USS George Washington bid farewell to its home in Japan for the past seven years on Monday, beginning a journey that will see the ship swap crews with the USS Ronald Reagan in late summer.
George Washington and the ships in its strike group will patrol the western Pacific and participate in the Australia-based Talisman Saber exercise in July before heading to San Diego, where about 2,000 sailors will switch over to Reagan.
The current George Washington crew will then resume its Pacific patrol aboard Reagan, which will be homeported in Yokosuka when it returns later in the fall.
Although there are minor differences that have emerged over years of carrier use, the 1,092-foot-long Nimitz-class carriers are standardized enough so that the respective crews will be able to take control of each ship quickly.
“Ronald Reagan is effectively the same ship,” Rear Adm. John Alexander, commander of the George Washington strike group, told reporters Monday. “It’s a little newer, but that’s really it.”
Thousands more sailors assigned to the Japan-based Carrier Air Wing 5 will also transfer to Reagan.
Most of the sailors who move to George Washington in San Diego won’t be on the ship very long. They will transfer to USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is switching its homeport from Norfolk, Va., to San Diego.
George Washington will continue onward with its present commander, Capt. Timothy Kuehhas, to Virginia, where it will begin a midlife overhaul and nuclear refueling that will take at least three years and cost about $4 billion.
There was discussion within the Pentagon last year of canceling the overhaul and decommissioning the ship as a cost-cutting move, but congressional opposition spurred additional funding.
On Monday, several dozen family members arrived pierside to watch as their loved ones left Japan for several months of sea duty.
Valerie Steely, of Hampton, Va., waved goodbye to her husband alongside their daughter Lilly, 3, and son Luke, 1.
“[Lilly] knows he’s going away for a while, but she knows he will be back when she’s 4,” Steely said.
Even for “veteran” military spouses, making the transition to a single-parent home has its challenges.
“It takes a few weeks to get on a routine,” Steely said. “But it’s what we signed up for.”
For Steely, watching George Washington head back to Virginia for its midlife overhaul brings back memories of the ship’s origins: Her father helped build the carrier in Virginia there more than two decades ago.
George Washington replaced the USS Kitty Hawk in 2008 and became the first nuclear-powered carrier to be homeported in Japan.
The ship’s initial deployment brought some protests from anti-nuclear and anti-war protesters; however, subsequent protests have been relatively sparse, particularly in comparison to the island of Okinawa, where about half of all U.S. forces in Japan are based.
In 1973, the USS Midway, its air wing and task force became the first U.S. carrier group to be homeported at Yokosuka.