Vandegrift, Gary get big welcome at Yokosuka
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Felicia Cambridge paid $250 to smooch her husband as he walked off the USS Gary on Saturday morning.
The ticket she bought at a Navy wives’ auction for “the first kiss” moved Chief Petty Officer Ricky Cambridge ahead of 220 sailors clamoring to disembark from the Gary after six months at sea.
It was money well spent, he said: “I’m overwhelmed. I’m just glad to be back home.”
The guided-missile frigates Gary and USS Vandegrift were the last ships from Yokosuka to return from the Persian Gulf, where they supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 4,100-ton “small boys” departed Jan. 29 for what turned out to be the longest deployment ever for many sailors.
“Six months was definitely a long haul for a ship from Japan,” said Lt. j.g. Ryan Easterday, a public affairs and anti-submarine warfare officer on the Gary.
Forward-deployed ships like the Gary typically embark for shorter periods, Easterday noted, but a six-month cruise is not that unusual for U.S.-based vessels.
“I couldn’t decide if it seemed more like a year or one week,” he said. “Time sort of stands still if you’re out there long enough.”
The Gary was the first to dock in Yokosuka’s harbor Saturday around 9 a.m., with the Vandegrift pulling in about 30 minutes later. The homecoming crowd was small — about 75-100 family members waited on the pier with “Welcome Home” balloons and signs. They cheered, shouted and clutched their cameras when they spotted their loved ones standing along the ships’ rails.
“I’m trying not to cry,” said a nervous Felicia Cambridge.
This deployment was particularly hard on family members, Cambridge said, due to the length and “our young soldiers still getting killed over there. I stayed in constant prayer for my husband.”
The ships began steaming home about a month ago, sailors said, stopping in exotic ports along the way: Bahrain; the Seychelles; Cochin, India; Darwin, Australia; Singapore; Saipan and Guam.
Family members had waited a long time for this day, ever since the USS Kitty Hawk and two ships in its battle group returned to Yokosuka on May 6 without the Gary and Vandegrift.
“We thought they would be home with the Kitty Hawk Battle Group,” Felicia Cambridge said.
Both the Gary and Vandegrift stayed back after the war in Iraq ended to escort allied-military and merchant ships entering and leaving the Persian Gulf region, officials said. Those ships carried supplies such as “trucks, tanks, beans and bullets” to Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other allied countries in the region, Easterday said.
Before the war, the Gary rescued eight Iraqi fishermen from their sinking vessel. The frigate also assisted two other distressed vessels while in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, according to a Navy news release.
The Vandegrift conducted escort missions near the Suez Canal after the war ended, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Renzelman, 33, an electronics-warfare technician.
A highlight for some Vandegrift sailors was training briefly with Jordan’s navy.
“We showed them how we did business,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Barry Fredericks, 22.
Some Vandegrift sailors whittled away hours at sea by fishing for mahi mahi and tuna off the Horn of Africa.
“We just dropped our lines off the back of the boat,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Pfeninger. “It kept me from going insane.”
Though many sailors felt proud of the role they played in Operation Iraqi Freedom, others were conflicted.
“I think there’s a lot of questions about the war on the ship,” Renzelman said. “Questions about why we went, what the implications are and what we’re trying to do now. There are still people in Iraq losing their lives.”
But Saturday morning, sailors were thinking only of home and their plans for the next several days.
Spouses said their husbands just wanted to relax and eat a home-cooked meal.
Renzelman, a single sailor, planned to hit some off-base eateries, such as Super Soup in Yokohama, with some friends.
“I just want to go out and have fun,” he said.