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Family and tourists welcome U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson home after Bin Laden burial at sea [Update]

June 15, 2011 | 11:02 am

Dozens of family members and tourists welcomed the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson as it returned to San Diego on Wednesday morning after a seven-month deployment that included the at-sea burial of Osama bin Laden.

 As the ship arrived, tourists stood along San Diego's Harbor Island to see the carrier maneuver into its berth at North Island Naval Air Station. Hundreds of sailors and Marines onboard manned the rails.

The Adventure Hornblower, a tour boat, glided along nearby so passengers could see the ship come in.

Photos: Carl Vinson returns to San Diego

Vinson.2 “It was amazing to watch them all manning the rails,” said Nicole Palazzolo, 29, of Michigan. “It’s like watching a piece of history float by. Those guys and girls, they’re the real deal. If you don’t believe me, ask Bin Laden.”

Louis Dufor, 67, of New Orleans, was snapping pictures of the big ship’s arrival. Onboard were 5,000-plus sailors and Marines.

“Every time one of those ships comes back, it gives us a chance to thank all those guys who are out there protecting us," he said. "That this was the ship that buried Bin Laden makes it even nicer.”     

Fred Sleman, 60, of Chicago and a former sailor from the Vietnam War era, said, “It’s amazing how big the ship is and how many people are on it and that we can send anywhere in the world. It’s so much bigger than the Midway [World War II-era ship that is now a museum based in San Diego]. That it was Bin Laden makes it even more important.”

The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier was in the north Arabian Sea on the day that Navy SEALs confronted and killed the Al Qaeda leader in his Pakistan hideout last month. His body, after DNA testing, was airlifted to the Vinson and quickly buried at sea.

In a telephone interview Monday, as the ship steamed toward its home port, the Vinson's commanding officer, Capt. Bruce Lindsey, would say only that the vessel and its crew carried out its orders. "I'm pretty sure we executed that mission very, very well."

The Vinson’s deployment included efforts to disrupt pirates in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman region, training with forces of half a dozen nations and providing 95 days of combat air missions to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Vinson's air wing completed 1,600 sorties, dropping 17,000 pounds of ordnance and firing 2,900 rounds of 20-millimeter ammunition. With U.S. warplanes overhead, insurgents are reluctant to venture into the open, Lindsey said.

Family members and friends of the sailors and Marines aboard are expected to crowd the dock of Coronado's North Island Naval Air Station as the Vinson completes a deployment that saw the vessel sail 60,206 nautical miles. Nearly 1,000 family members joined the ship in Hawaii for the final leg of the voyage to San Diego Bay.

{Update June 15, 1 p.m.: Family members and other well-wishers began to arrive at North Island at 5 a.m, many carrying signs and small American flags. Many family members had traveled from across the country to await the arrival; one family drove from Maine, another from Alaska.

When the carrier entered the bay and emerged from the early-morning mist around 9 a.m., a cheer went up in the crowd, estimated at 1,500 people.

Sailors and Marines whose wives had given birth during the deployment were allowed the privilege of being the first to disembark. One baby wore a bib: "I'm Meeting My Hero for the First Time."

Family members, as well as the Vinson crew, had been warned by Navy brass not to discuss the Bin Laden burial with reporters. Some would give only their first names, as a safety precaution.

One boy, tears in his eyes and a baseball glove on his hand, scanned the ship for his father and said only,"I just want to play catch with my dad."

Thomas Beddow, who had driven from Phoenix to meet his nephew, said the family plans a barbecue and maybe a trip to Disneyland.

"You know all that stuff about the World War II folks being the Greatest Generation?" Beddow said. "This is the new Greatest Generation right here!"]

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Photo: Top, the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson returned to San Diego on Wednesday. Right, Petty Officer Adam Arwood is reunited with his wife, Brandy. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times