ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE -- The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ended its remarkable career at sea yesterday when it pulled into its home port of Norfolk, Va., for the final time after participating in every major conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The USS Enterprise began shutting down its eight nuclear reactors almost as soon as it arrived at its pier at Naval Station Norfolk, where thousands of cheering family members and friends welcomed the ship home from its 25th and final deployment of nearly eight months at sea.
The ship will never move on its own power again and will eventually be scrapped in Washington state, making its final voyage a sentimental one for those who have sailed aboard "The Big E."
"It's exceptionally emotional and exceptionally satisfying," Rear Adm. Ted Carter, commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, said as Naval Station Norfolk came into view and his sailors took to the rails.
The ships' fighter planes flew more than 2,200 combat sorties and dropped 56 bombs in Afghanistan while supporting U.S. and international ground troops. In a show of force to Iran, the ship passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz 10 times, which Carter said is more than double the typical amount.
A frequent traveler to the Middle East, the Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered carrier to transit the Suez Canal, in 1986, and it was the first carrier to respond after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, changing course overnight to head to the Arabian Sea.
An entire room on the ship serves as a museum to its history, which includes a large photo of the burning Twin Towers, placed in a timeline that wraps around a wall.
The Navy will officially deactivate the Enterprise on Dec. 1, but it will take several more years for it to be decommissioned as its reactors are taken out.
Those who served on the ship have a unique camaraderie. It is the second-oldest ship in the Navy after the USS Constitution, and its age has frequently shown. Sailors who work on the Enterprise have a saying: "There's tough, then there's Enterprise tough."
Things frequently break down, and most spare parts for a ship that's the only one in its class aren't made anymore.
"She's just old, so you got to work around her," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Almaraz, an electronics technician. "We have to make our own parts sometimes because it just doesn't exist."
Those deployed on the Enterprise knew life wouldn't be easy at sea, a fact highlighted last year when former commanding officer Capt. Owen Honors was removed for airing raunchy videos that he said were intended to boost morale. Honors was found to have committed misconduct, but allowed to stay in the service. He is retiring in April.
Some of the ship's original crew members from 51 years ago -- known as plank owners -- were among the 1,500 civilians who joined the Enterprise for its last two days at sea, known as a Tiger Cruise.
"This is the end of an era that I helped start, so I was just honored that the captain invited me on board. There's no way I'd turn that down," said original crew member Ray Godfrey of Colorado Springs, Colo.