(See photos at end of story)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Usually the teary-eyed folks on Yokosuka’s piers wave goodbye to the sailors onboard, not to the Navy warship carrying them away.

But much of Wednesday’s pier-side sentiment was for the ship itself when USS Kitty Hawk steamed away from Yokosuka Naval Base for the last time.

Schoolchildren waved hand-drawn signs saying "Don’t Forget Japan!" "Fly Free, Kitty Hawk!" and "We Will Miss You!" while dignitaries waxed eloquent about the 47-year-old aircraft carrier’s service to the fleet.

After almost a decade forward-deployed to Japan, Kitty Hawk is returning stateside to offload equipment and sailors to its replacement — the USS George Washington — and is scheduled for decommissioning in 2009.

Before he boarded the ship, Kitty Hawk Strike Group Commander Rear Adm. Richard Wren called the departure bittersweet.

"This is the beginning of the end for the Kitty Hawk," Wren said.

Hitoshi Kimura, senior vice minister for foreign affairs of Japan, called the 1,065-foot-long, 280-foot-wide Kitty Hawk "the most famous warship in Japan" and a "symbol" of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

"I am proud to call Kitty Hawk our ship, not just your ship," Kimura said.

While Kitty Hawk’s "door is closing," a new door will open when the George Washington arrives in Yokosuka in August, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer said.

"When Japan and the U.S. stand together, peace has its best chance," Schieffer said. "Goodbye, Kitty Hawk; hello George Washington!"

The George Washington will be the Navy’s first nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier forward-deployed to Japan.

The carriers are to meet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, next month, when roughly a third of Kitty Hawk’s crew will crossdeck to the George Washington.

The George Washington is in San Diego undergoing repairs after a May 22 fire damaged the ship and trapped several sailors for hours. Officials have not released the cause of the fire, the extent of the damage or whether it will affect the hull swap with the Kitty Hawk.

After Hawaii, Kitty Hawk will stop in San Diego, but the carrier’s final destination is Bremerton, Wash., where it will be decommissioned next year.

On Wednesday, amid the speeches, balloons and final farewell ceremony, 13-year-old Andrew Debolt said Kitty Hawk had served the Navy well.

"It did its time," Debolt said. "It’s been through a lot of things."

Moreover, the ship’s departure makes for a great cultural joke in Japan, Yamaguchi Corp. interpreter Masami Wada said.

"Today it is no longer ‘Hello Kitty’ in Japan," Wada pointed out. "Today, it’s ‘Goodbye, Kitty.’  "

While the farewell festivities were nice, Tabatha Anderson and her son Tyler said they’re already looking forward to the George Washington’s arrival ceremony — because that means their beloved sailor is home.

"We’re going to miss him," Tabatha Anderson said of her husband, who departed with the Kitty Hawk on Wednesday and will join the George Washington crew in Hawaii.

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