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Lincoln battle group begins arriving home

SAN DIEGO, April 25 (UPI) -- A happy Navy ritual going back generations was repeated again in San Diego on Friday as the first ships from the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group returned from nearly a year at sea that included extended duty in the Persian Gulf.

An air of anticipation rippled through the excited crowd of well-wishers on the dock at the 32nd Street Naval Station and the sailors aboard the cruisers Mobile Bay and Shiloh, many of whom were stricken with a pleasant case of "channel fever" when the lights of San Diego came into view during the night.

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"Very few people slept last night," Petty Officer Doug Moeller said, after setting foot on the dock in San Diego in his dress whites for the first time since last July. "You think of the military being all big and tough, but when it comes to seeing your family, there wasn't a dry eye on the ship."

Moeller's family told Los Angeles television station KNBC that they were so excited about seeing their husband and dad that they drove right past the exit to the base and had to double back.

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The Moellers couldn't be blamed if they had forgotten how to reach the ships' dock since both guided-missile cruisers had been part of the Navy's longest ship deployment since the Vietnam War.

The Lincoln itself was scheduled for a brief stopover in Hawaii over the weekend and was scheduled to host President George W. Bush next week before another stopover in San Diego to drop off air units. The carrier is due home in Everett, Wash., on May 6.

The submarine USS Cheyenne, which had also been part of the Lincoln battle group, received a joyous greeting when it arrived home in Hawaii on Thursday, sailing into Pearl Harbor with a giant lei draped over its conning tower.

The Shiloh and Mobile Bay departed San Diego last July 24 for what was expected to be a standard six-month voyage as part of the Washington-based Lincoln's battle group. After taking part in strikes on Afghanistan, the Lincoln was on its way home when it was given new orders to turn around and return to the Persian Gulf to join the build-up ahead of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We had just left Australia when the captain came on (the ship's intercom) and said, 'Folks, we're not going home,'" Moeller recalled.

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After arriving back in the Gulf in late January, the Shiloh was assigned to coordinate air defenses for three carrier groups, a number of amphibious ships and cargo vessels loaded with equipment for the Marine Corps and Army.

The Mobile Bay, which had been taking part in the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists who might have tried to slip out of Afghanistan by sea, joined the ships escorting the carrier USS Constellation.

When hostilities broke out in March, both the Shiloh and Mobile Bay launched numerous cruise missiles against targets in Iraq.

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles.)

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