NORFOLK, DEC. 28 -- In the biggest sailing of American warships since the buildup for Vietnam, 16,000 U.S. sailors and Marines left five East Coast ports today for battle stations in the Persian Gulf.
The aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS America and six support ships carried 10,000 troops away from this increasingly empty Tidewater city. Nine more ships left other ports.
"We're goin' hunting!" proclaimed a banner on the stern of the America.
Vice Adm. Michael P. Kalleres, commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, said today's deployment completes the reinforcement of troops that President Bush ordered in November, which will bring the total number of Americans involved in Operation Desert Shield to 400,000. Navy spokesmen said today's massive battle group departure is unrivaled since the early stages of the Vietnam War.
Including those who left today, the Norfolk area alone has dispatched 31,000 military personnel to the Middle East.
"Everybody now has somebody in the Persian Gulf, and there is an enormous amount of stress and depression. This isn't easy," said teary-eyed Maria O'Neil as she hugged her husband, Navy Boatswain's Mate Michael O'Neil, on Pier 12. "I think quite often these days about how I would react if a chaplain came to my house and said my husband had been killed."
The young couple said their last goodbyes in the cold, gray hangar of the nuclear-powered Roosevelt, surrounded by thousands of others doing the same. Then families were cleared, and Rosie, as the sailors call the $2.5 billion carrier, was pulled into the frigid waters by tugboats. Pier 12, swept by bitter high winds, was awash in tears.
"This is not like the other times, when my son went off and I was happy for him then. He was seeing the world," said Lorrine Warnick, who drove from New Jersey to see off her son, Aviation Electrician's Mate David Warnick. "This is basically war," she said, her eyes swollen and red from crying.
While the Persian Gulf crisis still seems a distant political quarrel for many Americans, tens of thousands of people in the Hampton Roads region have close relatives in the tense war zone. The conflict has stilled traffic around the world's largest naval base here, emptied movie theaters and dance clubs, and financially strained many businesses.
Christmas Eve, traditionally one of the biggest days in the grocery business, was quiet at the Food Lion near the Norfolk Naval Base, according to the store manager, who said long lines at the cash registers are just a memory. Next door, at the Laundry World launderette, crew chief Tami Deri said business has been cut in half. "We used to take in $2,000 routinely. Now we can't break $1,000 a week," she said.
Slow business for Laundry World means hard luck for Deri. Her hours have been cut from 36 a week to 28 or 30. "When you have car payments and a 13-week-old daughter, that loss really hurts," said Deri, who is paid $3.85 an hour.
Thursday night and this morning, however, there was a sudden flurry of business around town. Many of the 10,000 sailors splurged one last time before setting out to sea for at least six months.
Almost all hotel rooms in the area were snapped up by late Thursday afternoon, as many sailors sought king-size beds before resigning to an ocean-going bunk. Others rented rooms for all-night parties. Cabs did a brisk business shuttling sailors to 7-Eleven stores for beer. Stores along Hampton Boulevard were cleared of cookies and snacks. And Angel Mendez, a storekeeper aboard the Roosevelt, added to the burgeoning crowd at P.J.'s dance club.
"Once I get on the ship, who can I dance with?" Mendez said. "The only female I'll get to see is a female bird flying by. Tonight I'm going to have fun."
"They are trying so desperately to have fun tonight but you can tell a lot of these guys are really unhappy and scared," said Lindee Campbell, who was swamped with requests long after all 119 rooms were taken at the Hampton Inn where she works.
Robert Wilson, an ordnance specialist who will maintain and transport bombs and missiles aboard the America, arrived too late to get a Hampton Inn room. He didn't know really what he wanted to do anyway, he said. Maybe he would just go back to the ship.
"I don't like this uneasy feeling I have. I feel something is going to happen over there," he said.
Wilson said he and many of his friends on the America were worried about heading to the Persian Gulf, especially after 21 sailors were killed last week when a ferry capsized off the coast of Israel.
"Those guys were just like us," he said about the drowned crewmen from the USS Saratoga. "Saddam Hussein did something stupid, but I hope this doesn't turn out to be even more stupid for us."
As the Roosevelt pulled out to sea today, Todd Vlassich, a 20-year-old from Karns City, Pa., stood at attention at the rails of the 1,040-foot carrier. Earlier, Vlassich, a Navy plane handler, had finished moving the last pieces of equipment that needed to go up to the flight deck, large enough for 90 planes.
"When I was little I used to have posters of planes in my bedroom. And now, here I am, Todd Vlassich from this tiny town working with F-14 Tomcats and A-6 Intruders," he said.
Vlassich was the drummer last year in his high school marching band in Karns, which has a population approaching 370. In the last year, he said, he has been trained four times in what to do if a plane catches fire. He has stocked up on 200 AA batteries for his Nintendo game and his Walkman. He has pictures of home to help him with his frequent bouts of homesickness.
"I'm ready to go," he said about two hours before the Roosevelt slipped into the gray sea. "At least, I guess I'm ready to go."
In addition to the two carriers, also leaving Norfolk were the missile cruiser USS Virginia, guided missile destroyer USS Preble, replenishment oiler USS Kalamazoo, destroyer USS Caron, fleet oiler USS Platte and combat stores ship USS San Diego.
Nine more ships based in Mayport, Fla., Charleston, S.C., Earle, N.J., and New York also departed today.