(Click on thumbnail for a larger version of the photo and more details. For a "slide show," click on first thumbnail, then use arrows to move between photos.)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Balloons, lots of ’em, in a rainbow of colors. Everywhere, American flags, both tiny and huge. Handmade signs. Booming music, clapping, arm-waving, cheering. Kisses and hugs, more of them, even, than balloons.

And the good tears, the kind that spring from joy.

The USS Kitty Hawk is home.

Hundreds of family and friends waited pierside as the massive aircraft carrier moored at its permanent dock for the first time since leaving Jan. 20 to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Persian Gulf. Also returning Tuesday were the USS Cowpens and USS John S. McCain.

Just before the Kitty Hawk was in range of tugboats, as the sun rose and tried to burn through ocean haze, sailors in freshly pressed dress whites started making their way to the flight deck, taking pictures of each other and talking excitedly about all the things they missed about being in port.

And then: “Man the rails!”

When the order was given, sailors sprinted across the deck to get the coveted spots on the ship’s starboard side — the side that gets tied to the pier.

As the pier came into view, music started blaring. On this morning, one that sailors had been anticipating for more than 100 days, the song was perfect: “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” by Ozzy Osbourne.

“This never gets old,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Tamra Hull, a 21-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas. “I love coming into port, and this time is special.”

Across the bay, sailors on a half-dozen Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships manned the rails in their dress whites, welcoming home the Kitty Hawk.

“C’mon, c’mon, let’s get this thing tied up already,” one sailor said over and over, eagerly scanning the crowd.

After a seemingly endless wait, the first brow was attached to the ship. First ashore was Capt. Thomas Parker, the Kitty Hawk’s skipper, and Howard Baker, U.S. ambassador to Japan, who flew by helicopter to the ship to convey greetings from President Bush. Soon, the rest of the crew started filing off — including Airman Travis Hyde, 22, of Twin Falls, Idaho. As he stepped on solid ground, his eyes danced and he smiled broadly.

“The whole thing was kind of exciting, and a little scary, all at the same time,” he said, referring to the past 100 days and the ship’s role in the war.

“It feels great to be back, and I feel proud to be an American. Very proud, very proud.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now