NORFOLK (NNS) -- As a 21-cannon salute boomed and U.S. Navy fighter jets thundered overhead, President George W. Bush declared a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named for his father, former President George H. W. Bush, will sail the globe as a potent symbol of men and women in uniform, past and present.
The Navy commissioned the 10th and final nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carrier Jan. 10, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in front of thousands attending the pierside ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk.
"This ship is a fitting tribute to a generation of men with whom my dad was privileged to serve," said the president, noting his father's service as a World War II naval aviator. "She's also a tribute to a generation of American Soldiers, Sailors, and Coast Guardmen and women and Airmen and Marines who have stepped forward to defend the United States of America.
"Again our troops are facing down a brutal enemy," the commander-in-chief added. "Again they are making America and the world safer, and again they will come home in victory."
Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch, the former president's daughter and ship's sponsor, ordered the command to "man our ship and bring her to life."
Sailors bedecked in dress blue uniforms rushed aboard the massive warship and lined the flight deck amidst a cacophony of sirens, bells and spinning radars. Four F/A-18 Super Hornets and a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, the same type of aircraft former President Bush once piloted in battle, roared above.
"This is a ship that will make history and today marks the first day of an illustrious journey," said Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter. "Nothing else compares to the arrival of a nuclear-powered carrier in our fleet. The impact of a carrier is global for no other ship represents to the world the power of the United States the way this does."
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said the dedication marked the start of setting the standards of a warship that will serve the nation for the next five decades, and for crew members not yet born.
"Today is a day of incredible work achieved and incredible work to be done," said Roughead.
"We know this is a technological marvel, but it's going to be the Sailors that make it great," said Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said naming the final Nimitz-class carrier after the former president and naval aviator was a fitting tribute.
"As a commander-in-chief, President Bush had a courage and toughness that impressed all who served with him," Gates added.
The former commander-in-chief said the commissioning harkened memories of a similar event he attended 65 years ago at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The Navy commissioned USS San Jacinto (CVL 30) on Dec. 15, 1943, the ship he served aboard during the war.
He marveled at his namesake ship, nearly twice as long as the San Jacinto, with a 4.5-acre flight deck and towering 20 stories above the water. Most important, he said, was the crew of the nation's newest warship.
"I wish I was sitting right out there with you ready to start the adventures of my naval aviation career all over," said Bush, 84. "I don't know if I could have handled the jets we fly today, but as you prepare to man this ship I do know you take with you the hopes and dreams of every American that cherishes peace and you take with you the undying respect and admiration of the entire Bush family."
He said crew members may routinely encounter duty that's difficult or dangerous as they prepare to stand the watch.
"As someone who has stood that watch and remembers the quiet solitude of that experience, I know you will find comfort and inspiration, particularly in the night sky," he said. "For it is basking in the splendor of the stars that you will truly understand the majesty of creation and bear witness to the certain hand of God."
Several other dignitaries attended the event including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
John J. Raquepau, 85, a World War II torpedo bomber pilot from St. Petersburg, Fla., served with former President Bush in combat. Raquepau lauded his one-time squadron mate for having a nuclear-powered carrier honor his name.
"I think it's appropriate," said Raquepau, who said Bush gave him the nickname "Raq." "He earned it very well. One year in combat, that's a hell of a long time."
Bush served as the youngest pilot in the Navy during the war. Japanese anti-aircraft fire brought down his TBM Avenger with two other crewman Sept. 2, 1944, near Chichi Jima. After the plane was hit, Bush was able to drop bombs on the target before bailing out over the Pacific Ocean. The submarine USS Finback (SS 230) rescued him at sea. The two crew members did not survive. Bush earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for courage during the attack and three air medals for duty in the Pacific Theater.
Once his namesake warship completes sea and builder trials early this year, it will depart on its first operational deployment in late 2010 with 5,500 Sailors and an air wing of about 80 combat aircraft.
The 1,092-foot-long carrier is nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. The more than 97,000-ton vessel with two nuclear reactors has a top speed in excess of 30 knots.
Northrup Grumman built the ship at its Newport News, Va., shipyard using more than a billion parts from 2,000 contractors in 46 states.
"If anyone has any questions about the ingenuity and dedication of American workers, they should see this ship," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
The shipyard will build the nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) as a new class of supercarrier scheduled for delivery in 2015.
Capt. Kevin E. O'Flaherty, Bush commanding officer, said his crew is ready.
"We are here to serve, we are trained, and we are ready to take this ship to sea."
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