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First Two Carriers Return From Middle East

March 28, 1991

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Two aircraft carriers, a retiring battleship and their support ships returned home Thursday from the Persian Gulf War to a champagne-and-roses welcome at three East Coast ports.

The USS John F. Kennedy at the Norfolk Naval Base and the USS Saratoga, at Mayport, Fla., were met by thousands of cheering family members and friends, many waving flags and dressed in Easter finery.

The guided missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts returned home to the Newport Naval Base at Middletown, R.I., with a huge Hawaiian lei draped from its bow.

″I’ve waited a long time for this,″ said Jeannie Davis of Lynchburg, mother of gunner’s mate Christopher Epperson, who was aboard the Norfolk-based battleship USS Wisconsin.

″I’m going to put up the Christmas tree this weekend and we’re going to do it all, everything he missed.″

For the World War II-era Wisconsin, the homecoming was bittersweet. It has taken a direct hit from Defense Department budget cuts and is scheduled to be mothballed Oct. 1.

In all, about 20,000 sailors returned home Thursday. Most of the ships were sent overseas shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait last Aug. 2, and the sailors have missed several holidays.

″We’re going to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthday all in one,″ said Sidney Welch of King, N.C. He came to Norfolk to greet his son, John Stogdale, an airman apprentice aboard the Kennedy.

At Mayport, the Saratoga group’s ships cruised by hundreds of private boats, tugboats and other craft flying American flags and yellow ribbons in the channel leading to the docks.

The piers at Norfolk were lined with ″welcome home″ signs, and many wives and parents had shirts imprinted with pictures of their returning sailors. Dozens of private celebrations and vacations were planned.

″We’re going to take a vacation down to my grandparents’ beach home, although he doesn’t know it yet,″ Tami Grossman of Portsmouth said while waiting for her husband, Jonathan, who arrived on the Kennedy.

Other families planned to stay close to home.

″We’re just awful glad to have him back,″ Rosemary Spitaler, of North Andover, Mass., said of her son Philip, a crewman on the Norfolk-based USS San Jacinto. ″I just want to get him home and keep him there.″

The homecoming also meant the end of yellow ribbons and candles in windows for the Navy families.

″Every letter we got from him, he said: ’I love and miss you. Please don’t let that candle go out,‴ said Ann Robinson of Shelby, N.C. Her son, Chris McIntosh, was aboard the Kennedy.

Before the Saratoga docked in Mayport, its sailors were treated to a mini- concert by Whitney Houston, who recorded a Sunday HBO cable TV special welcoming returning troops.

Saratoga pilots flew 2,626 long-distance combat sorties, delivering more than 4.3 million pounds of ordnance and shooting down the first two Iraqi MiG- 21 aircraft of the war, the Navy said. The crew lost one pilot in the air war and 21 sailors in a ferry accident off Haifa, Israel, just before Christmas.

The Wisconsin’s skipper, Capt. David S. Bill, said at a news conference aboard the battleship that he was saddened by its upcoming retirement.

″In my mind this is a national asset. It’s a very visible and forceful indication of the might of this country. To see it tied up alongside the pier ... would be a great sadness. As a matter of fact, I would refuse to go see it,″ he said.

The first Tomahawk cruise missile fired in combat roared off the Wisconsin on Jan. 17 and headed for a target in Iraq. Within 48 hours, the Wisconsin fired 24 Tomahawks. The battleship also used its 16-inch guns to pound Iraqi shore positions in Kuwait.

In Rhode Island, the Roberts, with a crew of 203, returned in better shape Thursday than it did in 1988, when it was torn open by a mine while on duty in the Persian Gulf escorting a Kuwaiti-flagged oil tanker during the Iran-Iraq war.