Friends and family of sailors onboard the USS George Washington watch as it departs from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on April 25, 2024.

Friends and family of sailors onboard the USS George Washington watch as it departs from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on April 25, 2024. (Billy Schuerman, The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — The USS George Washington aircraft carrier departed Thursday from Naval Station Norfolk, Va., embarking on a months-long journey to its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, where it will begin a new chapter.

The Washington and about 3,200 sailors on board crossed the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel around 11 a.m. ET before cruising out of the Chesapeake Bay. It marked the end of the Washington’s time in Hampton Roads for the foreseeable future, but it is a journey the crew is ready to begin, leaders said.

“We are excited to do what we signed up to do — to be part of something bigger than ourselves, be a part of a winning team and travel and see the world,” said Randy Swanson, command master chief of the Washington.

The Washington came to Naval Station Norfolk in December 2015 from Japan, but the bulk of the carrier’s time in the region was spent inoperable at Newport News Shipbuilding, where it was a fixture for more than six years. During that time, there were nine suicides among the Washington crew, including three in one week in April 2022.

Now, the ship is headed to South America to train with foreign forces as it circumnavigates the continent over the next two to three months en route to Japan, said Cmdr. Dawn Stankus, spokesperson for Naval Air Force Atlantic.

The carrier will stop this summer in San Diego, where a portion of the crews of the Washington and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will swap ships. This means Reagan sailors will take over the Washington for their assignments in Japan, and Washington sailors will take over the Reagan for its next phase. Meanwhile, others will be reassigned to new units and dispersed across the country.

The transition will affect roughly 6,000 sailors across both ships, Stankus said. Of the current crew assigned to the Washington, only a few hundred will follow the ship to Japan. She said exactly how many was unknown Thursday.

The Washington is scheduled to arrive in Japan by this fall, officials said.

Michelle Nation is one of four volunteer ombudsmen who acts as a liaison between families and the ship’s leadership. Two ombudsmen have moved to Japan to help the families who will be following sailors overseas.

The ombudsmen help families navigate the move, including scheduling movers and travel. Families moving to Japan, Nation said, often live in the local community and have to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and challenges that come with getting children established in a new school or finding employment.

However, not every sailor’s family will relocate. Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Sanders, 32, said his wife and three children, ages 13, 9 and 7, will stay in Hampton Roads for the three years he is stationed in Japan. The decision was difficult, Sanders said, but he wanted to see it through with the Washington.

“I am excited to see us out there performing and earning the trust of the American people,” Sanders said.

Sanders, an aviation boatswain’s mate, has been with the Washington since it entered Newport News Shipbuilding.

“To see it transform — from shipyard workers working alongside us with hoses and pipes running through the ship — to see what we have become now is amazing,” Sanders said.

From San Diego, the Reagan will head to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state for maintenance. The ship will make the journey to Newport News Shipbuilding in the coming years for its midlife refueling and maintenance overhaul.

For now, Naval Station Norfolk is home to four carriers, down from five. The Hampton Roads installation serves as the hub for all East Coast-based aircraft carriers. Until Thursday, that included the Washington, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS Harry S. Truman, USS George H.W. Bush and the USS Gerald R. Ford.

But the Eisenhower is deployed to the Middle East, the Bush is undergoing maintenance at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth and the Truman is in and out of port as it prepares for deployment later this year. That leaves the Ford alone at the piers and the naval station’s Carrier Row along the Elizabeth River looking sparse.

As the Washington prepared to leave Thursday, Capt. Brent Gaut released the last rope securing the warship to the pier. He served as commanding officer of the Washington from June 2021 to February 2024. Gaut, who is retiring after a 31-year career, said he wanted to see the ship off to close a personal chapter as well as to see the start of the ship’s new chapter.

“The journey to get here was very challenging,” Gaut said. “But to be here today gives me hope and gives sailors hope that you can believe in something, have that faith and keep working to achieve your goals. And today is a celebration of all the people who have been involved in this tremendous project.”

©2024 The Virginian-Pilot

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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