USS Constellation heads for Persian Gulf

By HIL ANDERSON  |  Nov. 2, 2002 at 4:51 PM
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SAN DIEGO, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Tears and long faces were in abundance on Saturday morning as about 400 well-wishers, with their emotions bubbling to the surface, watched the aircraft carrier USS Constellation slowly set sail from its home port in San Diego Bay on a six-month mission that will include duty in the Persian Gulf region.

A banner reading "Okay, Let's Roll" hung from the fantail of the huge ship as powerful tugboats pushed it back from its berth at North Island Naval Air Station and pointed it towards the Pacific.

It was the beginning of a voyage that should have the battle group and its 72 aircraft in the Gulf region and in position to launch air strikes and cruise missiles before Christmas.

"The president said inaction is not one of the options," said Rear Adm. Barry Costello, the commander of the six cruisers, destroyers and frigates that serve as the Constellation's escorts.

"If the president needs us, we'll be there."

Costello and other Navy officers in the battle group would not discuss the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq or any other targets.

But the looming chance that war could break out was considered a near certainty, and the fact that the 41-year-old "Connie" would undoubtedly be in the thick of it was on the minds of those present for its sendoff.

"We expect to go into harm's way and we expect to make America proud," the admiral boasted.

The Constellation is scheduled to relieve the carrier Abraham Lincoln, now in the Gulf, and will take part in air operations and intercept merchant ships that may be smuggling fuel and other cargo in violation of U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

Although the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan is largely over, the Constellation's preparations for deployment were accelerated last summer and its departure date was moved from early 2003 to Saturday.

"The president told us a year ago to be ready, and we're ready," the carrier's skipper, Capt. John Miller, told United Press International.

The United States has been prodding the U.N. Security Council into adopting a resolution that would require Iraq to submit to U.N. weapons inspections or face a military response. While such a resolution was still pending on Saturday, the Constellation's crew and the loved ones they left behind were anxious about the coming deployment.

"This is his fifth WestPac," Nancy Metzger said after her husband boarded the carrier, her voice cracking in emotion that gave away the shellacking her heart was taking.

"There is something about this one that is making me a little more nervous."

WestPac deployments have long been a fact of life for the thousands of Navy and Marine Corps families in the San Diego area, and Saturday's scene at North Island was one that has been repeated for decades.

Spouses, sweethearts, parents and children began showing up at the pier at the break of dawn as the crew reported for duty at 5 a.m. PST. Most would wait the full four hours until the Constellation began to slowly move away under a cloudless Southern California sky.

"It's impressive," declared Mary Grace, who lives near North Island and came to watch the spectacle on the advice of her daughter, Kate, who recently completed Navy boot camp and was assigned to the carrier Harry S. Truman.

"My daughter is getting ready to go out in December," said the proud Grace. "I'm going to be in Norfolk when she gets back."

Women ranging in age from their teens to middle age choked back tears while waving or talking in English or Spanish on cellular telephones to their sailors and Marines as they lined up along the flight deck among the FA-18 Hornet strike jets and other types of planes and helicopters.

Little kids glumly stared at the huge ship that would take their dads -- and in some cases their moms -- out to sea for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the better part of the school year. Some held hand-lettered signs assuring their fathers that they were loved while others fidgeted with boredom or shed the coats and sweatshirts they had worn in the earlier-morning chill.

"Wave girls, wave," one mother urged as she and her three children shifted around for a better view.

One young sailor headed for the gangway with a fresh lipstick print on his cheek while a medley of patriotic and popular songs blared from the carrier's speakers; the Billy Joel ballad "New York State of Mind" seemed to generate the most tears as the stern reality of a possible war loomed.

Jackie Davis, whose husband is a crewman on the North Island-based carrier Nimitz, comforted her friend Patricia Hill, who broke down in tears even though her husband has been on a whopping 15 WestPac cruises.

"Whenever he goes out, it's a whole different WestPac," Davis said. "But WestPacs are always the same. It's hard every time."

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