ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE - The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier ended its remarkable career at sea on Sunday when it pulled into its home port for the final time after participating in every major conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The USS Enterprise began shutting down its eight nuclear reactors almost as soon as it arrived at its pier at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, where thousands of cheering family members and friends welcomed the ship home from its 25th and final deployment after nearly eight months at sea. The ship will never move on its own power again and will eventually be scrapped in Washington state.
Copies of the ship's daily newspaper, the Shuttle, were in short supply as sailors looked for memorabilia to take with them. Countless personal photos were taken by sailors throughout the ship as it approached shore.
"It's exceptionally emotional and exceptionally satisfying," Rear Adm. Ted Carter, commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, said as the naval station came into view and his sailors manned the rails.
However, Carter is the first to say that the Enterprise's final deployment was anything but a sentimental victory lap. The ship's fighter planes flew more than 2,200 combat sorties and dropped 56 bombs in Afghanistan while supporting U.S. and international ground troops. In a show of force to Iran, the ship also passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz 10 times, more than double the typical amount, Carter said.
The Enterprise has been a frequent traveler to the Middle East. It was the first nuclear-powered carrier to transit through the Suez Canal in 1986, and it was the first carrier to respond after the 9/11 attacks, changing course overnight.
An entire room on the ship serves as a museum to its history, which includes a large photo of the burning twin towers placed in a timeline that wraps around a wall.
The Navy will officially deactivate the Enterprise on Dec. 1, but it will take several more years for it to be decommissioned as its reactors are taken out. About 15,000 people are expected to attend the deactivation ceremony, which will be its last public ceremony after several days of tours for former crew members.
Those who have served on the ship have a unique camaraderie. It is the second-oldest ship in the Navy after the USS Constitution, and its age has frequently shown. Things frequently break down, and spare parts for a ship that's the only one in its class aren't made anymore.
Some of the ship's original crewmembers from 51 years ago - known as plank owners - were among the 1,500 civilians who joined the Enterprise for its last two days at sea, known as a Tiger Cruise.
"This is the end of an era that I helped start, so I was just honored that the captain invited me on board. There's no way I'd turn that down," said original crew member Ray Godfrey of Colorado Springs, Colo.