San Diego Union Tribune

May 27, 2004

Carrier Reagan sails for S.D. home
Moving crew, kin 'huge undertaking'


WASHINGTON The nation's newest and most powerful aircraft carrier today sails from Norfolk, Va., on a journey that will take a crew of nearly 3,000 and a name with great California significance Ronald Reagan to its home port in San Diego.

To get to its new home, the nuclear-powered carrier will travel more than 12,000 nautical miles, going around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, a place noted for violent weather.

"We expect some high winds and heavy seas," said Capt. James Symonds, commanding officer of the 97,000-ton, 1,092-foot-long warship. "But I think we can handle it."

Along the way, the Reagan and its crew will transition from spring into fall, then into winter before emerging into summer for the ship's scheduled arrival at North Island Naval Air Station about July 23.

"We know we're in for a tremendous reception when we get there," Symonds said in a telephone interview.

A large part of the welcoming crowd the carrier's crew can expect will be family members who already have taken up residence in the San Diego area or will be moving there during the ship's two-month transit.

Relocating the crew and their families has been "a huge undertaking," Symonds said. "We figure we're moving about 1,000 families."

For some of the sailors and their families, the change from Norfolk to San Diego brings a bit of sticker shock when they look for housing.

"Housing in San Diego is one of the big challenges," with prices considerably higher than those in the Norfolk area and the waiting list for government housing up to a year, Symonds said.

Many of the Reagan crew members, however, benefited from a Navy policy that allowed them to put their names on the housing list when they first got orders to the ship, up to two years ago.

That means "some of the Reagan sailors are at the top of the list now," Master Chief Petty Officer Kathleen Hansen said.

Also, some of the crew members came to the Reagan from San Diego, leaving their families there, Hansen said.

Hansen made that move only two months ago, transferring from the job of command master chief on the amphibious ship Pearl Harbor, the latest of many San Diego assignments in her 24-year Navy career.

"I love San Diego," she said.

Hansen has been heavily involved in the home-port challenges since her arrival. One of her major tasks has been ensuring that crew members were getting the allowance for housing for San Diego, which can be twice as much as for Norfolk, she said.

While wrestling with the personnel issues associated with the relocation, Symonds also had to worry about getting his vessel out of the Newport News shipyard, where it spent five months correcting problems revealed during its initial sea trials and getting planned upgrades.

The process went two weeks longer than expected, Symonds added, but "we are in great shape. . . . We're ready to take on the staff and the air wing." That was a reference to the staffs of Cruiser Destroyer Group 1, commanded by Rear Adm. Robert Moeller, and Carrier Air Wing 11, led by Capt. James Greene.

The Reagan will sail with only a few of the normal 70-plus aircraft, but plans to conduct flight operations on a number of days en route to San Diego, Symonds said.

Several years ago, the Navy considered assigning the carrier to Bremerton, Wash., instead of San Diego. But the San Diego congressional delegation led a successful fight to keep the warship in the state where Reagan became famous as an actor and two-term Republican governor.

"That was right thing," Symonds said. "(The ship) could not go anywhere but San Diego."

Symonds, who has flown as both a bombardier and a pilot in attack aircraft in his 28-year career, said command of a carrier is a great honor that is made even more special because this ship "carries the great name of Ronald Reagan."

"He was absolutely the best president. He changed my life," the captain said. "All of a sudden, it was a great thing to be in the military again. We got great pay raises . . . we were honored again.

"I think that extends throughout the ship. Our morale is a bit higher than other ships, all because of the Ronald Reagan name."

Hansen said she believes "a lot of people specifically come here just because of the name. For the younger people, it's not a president like Washington. This is one from their lifetime."