She has landed Marines in South Vietnam and dropped anchor at the Persian Gulf. She has carried tens of thousands of sailors out to sea and brought them home amid brass bands and joyful tears.
But when the tank carrier Cayuga docked at Long Beach on Thursday afternoon, greeted by a welcoming throng of 250 people or more, there was an unprecedented poignancy in the salty air: After 100 days off the coast of Somalia, and a quarter of a century of unflagging service to her country, the 8,300-ton ship was not merely home. She was home for good.
Rendered obsolete by the shrinking defense budget and the swift pace of technology, the Cayuga wrapped up its last mission on Thursday with just one stop left--the Navy graveyard. The ship, one of the last of its kind, is scheduled to be mothballed in July.
"The Cayuga is still a good ship, and if we weren't going for a smaller Navy, it might have stayed around a while longer," said Navy spokesman Lt. Karl Johnson. "But with the present direction, we need ships that can carry out multiple missions, and unfortunately, the Cayuga's function is singular--it's a tank-landing ship. It can carry land equipment, but it can't carry helicopters, and the newer amphibious assault ships can carry three times as many troops."
In 1990, the Long Beach Naval Station was home to a respectable fleet of 38 ships, Johnson said, but in the past three years, peacetime belt-tightening has shrunk that number dramatically.
Only 11 ships are now home-ported in Long Beach, Johnson said, and by the end of September, seven of those will be gone. Four will stay in Long Beach, four will move to new ports, and three will be decommissioned and put into storage or leased.
After a monthlong leave, Johnson said, the crew of the Cayuga will return to say goodby. They will secure the engineering compartments, pack up the lifeboats, and cart off the computers and radar. They will swab the decks and pay one last homage to that old Navy adage: "If it moves, grease it--if it doesn't, paint it," and then they will bid a ritual farewell.
The captain, Cmdr. Edward Weiss, will be the last to leave the ship. The marching band will play "Taps." And then the shipyard crew will swarm over the Cayuga again, readying it for towing to one of the Navy's ship cemeteries, otherwise known as inactive ship maintenance facilities.
Thursday's atmosphere bore little resemblance to a funeral, as the 235 crew members were met by loved ones carrying roses and flags.
"Even before he left, I thought about this day," said Tootie Romero, 24, as she waited for her husband, Guillermo.
Their youngest child "has cried every single day he's been gone," said Romero, who drove eight hours from San Manuel, Ariz., to greet her husband.
Nor was Seaman Steve Crawford particularly nostalgic about the ship. "I have no feeling for it. None," he said, rushing headlong toward his wife and their 3 1/2-month-old daughter, born while he was at sea.
But Johnson said the crew of the Cayuga will have more of a soft spot than they realize for the vessel once she is gone.
"As a sailor, you grow attached to your ship," he said. "You put your life's blood into operating it. You think of it as a good friend--and like a good friend, you believe it will be there forever."