USS George Washington aircraft carrier leaves Norfolk to begin a new chapter in Japan

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The USS George Washington aircraft carrier departed Thursday from Naval Station Norfolk, embarking on a monthslong journey to its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, where it will begin a new chapter.

The Washington and about 3,200 sailors on board crossed the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel about 11 a.m. before cruising out of the Chesapeake Bay. It marked the end of the Washington’s time in Hampton Roads for the foreseeable future — but it is a journey the crew is ready to begin, leaders said.

“We are excited to do what we signed up to do — to be part of something bigger than ourselves, be a part of a winning team and travel and see the world,” said Randy Swanson, command master chief of the Washington.

The Washington arrived at Naval Station Norfolk in December 2015 from Japan, but the bulk of the carrier’s time in the region was spent inoperable at Newport News Shipbuilding, where it was a fixture for more than six years. During that time, there were nine suicides among the Washington crew, including three in one week in April 2022.

Now, the ship is headed to South America to train with foreign forces as it circumnavigates the continent over the next two to three months en route to Japan, said Cmdr. Dawn Stankus, spokesperson for Naval Air Force Atlantic.

The carrier will stop this summer in San Diego, where a portion of the crews of the Washington and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will swap ships. This means Reagan sailors will take over the Washington for their assignments in Japan, and Washington sailors will take over the Reagan for its next phase. Meanwhile, others will be reassigned to new units and dispersed across the country.

The transition will affect roughly 6,000 sailors across both ships, Stankus said. Of the current crew assigned to the Washington, only a few hundred will follow the ship to Japan. She said exactly how many was unknown.

The Washington is scheduled to arrive in Japan by fall, officials said.

The USS George Washington (CVN-73) embarks on a southern seas deployment around South America from Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 25, 2024. The ship will eventually move on to its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan. (Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot)

Michelle Nation is one of four volunteer ombudsmen who acts as a liaison between families and the ship’s leadership. Two ombudsmen have moved to Japan to help the families who will be following sailors overseas.

The ombudsmen help families navigate the move, including scheduling movers and travel. Families moving to Japan, Nation said, often live in the local community and have to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and challenges that come with getting children established in a new school or finding employment.

However, not every sailor’s family will relocate. Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Sanders, 32, said his wife and three children, ages 13, 9 and 7, will stay in Hampton Roads for the three years he is stationed in Japan. The decision was difficult, Sanders said, but he wanted to see it through with the Washington.

“I am excited to see us out there performing and earning the trust of the American people,” Sanders said.

Sanders, an aviation boatswain’s mate, has been with the Washington since it entered Newport News Shipbuilding.

“To see it transform — from shipyard workers working alongside us with hoses and pipes running through the ship — to see what we have become now is amazing,” Sanders said.

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