BREMERTON, Wash. — At long last, the USS Nimitz returned home Sunday, close to a year after the aircraft carrier left Sinclair Inlet in Washington state.
The 100,000-ton warship, in completing a deployment that included flying sorties against the Islamic State in the Middle East to navigating the disputed waters of the South China Sea, returns to Bremerton, Washington, having logged 99,000 miles. Navy leaders have called it a record-long journey for a carrier in the years after World War II.
Most of its 3,000-plus sailors, roughly half of which were serving in their first-ever deployment, boarded the warship April 1, 2020 to quarantine for COVID-19. With its crew manning the rails, Nimitz squeezed through Rich Passage to Sinclair Inlet Sunday, just 25 days shy of a full year away from families.
“Every facet of America is here,” Rick Mengel, the Nimitz’s command master chief, told the Kitsap Sun, part of the USA TODAY Network, in January 2020. “Some grew up on farms, some grew up in the city. Every walk of life is here, from every state. We have America onboard Nimitz.”
The average age of a sailor on the Nimitz is about 24. And, thanks to social distancing, mask-wearing and the creation of a COVID-19 bubble, the first aircraft carrier strike group to deploy during the pandemic endured not a single case of novel coronavirus out at sea, the ship said. Its sailors have yet to be vaccinated due to the logistic challenges of getting the ultra-cold inoculations to sea.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to guard that bubble,” said Capt. Max Clark, Nimitz’s commanding officer.
The crew knew the stakes, Clark said. America’s fleet of Nimitz-class carriers have been overtaxed, including the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt last spring that took a sailor’s life.
“For a while there, we said, ‘if it’s not Nimitz, it’s nobody,'” Clark said.
Nimitz had turned for home several times throughout this deployment, only to turned back for another mission.
More from the Kitsap Sun:Loved ones of Nimitz sailors making final preparations for their return home
Once in Bremerton, the aircraft carrier, the ship, named for the legendary fleet admiral who helped the U.S. defeat the Japanese Navy in World War II, is due for what’s known as a “planned incremental availability” of maintenance at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. It will be moored at Pier Bravo at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton and not require work in dry dock.
Nimitz deployment: a timeline
April 1, 2020: Many Nimitz sailors board the ship at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton for quarantine.
Late April: After testing more than 8,000 sailors and civilians for the novel coronavirus, the USS Nimitz departs Bremerton to complete its training and get ready for deployment.
Mid-May: Rear Adm. James A. Kirk, a Hershey, Pennsylvania, native who made headlines a few years ago as the first captain of the next generation USS Zumwalt destroyer, becomes commander of Nimitz’s Carrier Strike Group 11.
Early June: The Nimitz, packed with more than 6,000 sailors, officially sets sail for deployment, the Navy’s first such launch of a carrier strike group in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early July: A rare show of force in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan hold joint exercises to “strengthen warfighting readiness and proficiency,” including simulations to strike enemy territory while in waters claimed by China and neighboring nations.
Mid-July: Nimitz and its strike group trains with the Indian Navy.
Early September: A search ensues for Ian McKnight, an information systems technician who apparently went overboard. McKnight has not been found.
Mid-September: Nimitz cruises through the Strait of Hormuz and into the waters of the Persian Gulf, the first aircraft carrier and strike group in the gulf since USS Abraham Lincoln sailed there in November 2019. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force flew a surveillance drone over the ship while there with tensions high in the region. Its time in the gulf includes stops at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and in Oman.
October: Nimitz takes a call from Navy Capt. Christopher Cassidy, commander of the International Space Station.
Mid-November: The Nimitz joins vessels from the navies of Australia, India and Japan — the so-called “Quadrilateral” nations — in a scheduled exercise named Malabar, which has been ongoing since 1992.
Nov. 27: The Pentagon orders Nimitz back to the Persian Gulf region to help provide deterrence as troop withdrawals come in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dec. 21: The USS Nimitz reaches the Horn of Africa in support of troop movements in Somalia and surrounding countries and to help maintain pressure on terrorist groups in the region.
Dec. 25: Nimitz takes a call from Vice President Mike Pence on Christmas.
Dec. 31: The Pentagon announces Nimitz can head home to Bremerton.
Jan. 3: Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announces the aircraft carrier and its strike group will stay in the region because of what he said were provocations by Iran.
Feb. 2: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes the order to send Nimitz home.
Feb. 9: On its route home to Bremerton, the USS Nimitz sails into the disputed waters of the South China Sea to meet up and train with a fellow aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group.
Late-February: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Adm. Michael Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, fly to the USS Nimitz as the warship neared San Diego. The warship soon after arrives at Naval Air Station North Island to offload its air wing.
March 4: The Nimitz arrives at Naval Magazine Indian Island to offload ordnance; some crew members disembark there.
March 8 and beyond: The aircraft carrier is due for what’s known as a “planned incremental availability” of maintenance at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. It will be moored at Pier Bravo at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton.
Follow reporter Josh Farley on Twitter at @joshfarley
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