The USS Philippine Sea came home to Naval Station Mayport on a sunny Wednesday morning, a long 10 months and two days after its 300 sailors left family and friends for what was anticipated to be just a six-month deployment.
After that long delay, here were some pretty eager family members itching to see their sailors again, among them 11 babies who'd never seen their fathers.
And for the first time since the pandemic began, some family members were allowed on the dock to meet the arriving sailors.
Anthony Mobley, a cryptologic technician, just beamed as he got his first look at his 5-month-old daughter, Amelia, handed him by his wife, Alina. "Indescribable," he managed to say. "I can't even ..."
He searched for words. "Indescribable," he said again.
A few feet away, Conner Ewing, a petty officer second class, smiled as he got his first look at his 6-month-old daughter, Evelyn. His wife, Hannah, had brought their daughter to the dock along with a sign fringed in red, white and blue that made this announcement: "EWING. Your girls are here and we brought Doughnuts and Beer."
It had been a long time away.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, sailors left their family and friends and began isolating aboard the ship June 19 last year but did not leave Mayport until July 3, said commanding officer Kevin Hoffman.
Another delay came when the ship spent several unscheduled weeks in Bahrain after some sailors tested positive for COVID-19. And then just as the guided-missile cruiser aimed for home, a cargo ship got jammed across the Suez Canal, leaving the Philippine Sea waiting in the northern Red Sea.
"We held tight and continued on our mission, conducting missions in the Red Sea until we were given the clearance to go," said Hoffman, who complimented the crew's resiliency, while acknowledging they were eager to get home.
The cruiser, which had also carried the Vipers of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 48, traveled nearly 70,000 miles, many of them in the Middle East.
It spent time in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf. It went through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-el Mandeb. And it made 18 transits of the Strait of Hormuz while escorting partner military vessels and commercial shipping.
The Philippine Sea is the last cruiser at Mayport, and its stay there won't be long. Hoffman said the ship is moving to a new homeport, Norfolk, by late summer.
Cheers sprung up in the parking lot just before 10 a.m. as a loudspeaker announced "moored shift colors," signifying the ship had officially docked.
At that, a tight eight-piece band, Jacksonville NAS' Deckplate Brass Band, kicked off a swinging version of "Anchors Aweigh."
Rick and Cathy Malczynski were waiting for their daughter Mady, an ensign on the Philippine Sea and a Naval Academy graduate on her first deployment.
They admitted the delay had been challenging. "She's tough though, and we're a military family," said her mother. "We're used to this."
She said she'd sent care packages to Mady, who had told them she was looking forward to a long hot shower.
"And some fresh vegetables," her father said.
Amanda Pryor was at the head of the line of those awaiting the ship, the soon-to-be recipient of the ceremonial first kiss. She held a sign for her husband, Lt. Robert Pryor: "Miss me, miss me, now you gotta kiss me!"
At 10:34 a.m. he was first off the ship, carrying a duffel bag, a rolling suitcase and fresh flowers (one of numerous bouquets that had been shipped to the Philippine Sea that morning aboard the tug that met it just offshore).
As he took off his cap to get a better angle on the kiss, cheers sprung up from the sailors still lined up on the ship.
Mary Quick held up her son, Liam, 6, as she spotted her husband Blake. "Look!" she said. "Daddy's signing, 'I love you!'"
A huge grin — part surprise, mostly delight — took over Liam's face as he signed "I love you" right back. And when his father finally reached the dock, Liam raced his siblings, Logan, 11, and Maleia, 9, to get to him.
Their father, still holding a bouquet, crouched at the foot of the gangplank, waiting for his children, holding his arms out just as wide as he could.
This article is written by Matt Soergel from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.