NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The USS Bainbridge returned to a hero's homecoming Monday as the guided-missile destroyer completed a deployment that included the dramatic rescue of an American ship captain held by pirates off Africa.
Seven sailors whose wives had babies during the Bainbridge's deployment were the first to greet their spouses and hold their new children for the first time. Other spouses shared long embraces as families photographed or videotaped the emotional reunion at Pier Nine of Naval Station Norfolk.
Kayla Watkins, 20, of Lewisburg, Tenn., was one of the new mothers. Awaiting her sailor husband, Jacob, she held Karson, age 8 weeks.
"Words can't express how excited I am," Watkins said.
Hailed as "pirate hunters" in signs and T-shirts, many of the 300 members of the Bainbridge crew and command shrugged off the drama of their seven-month deployment.
Cmdr. Frank Castellano, who was met by his wife, two daughters and other relatives, said his crew "performed superbly" during the ordeal.
"Anyone's action in the military is heroic, day in and day out. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we had good training," Castellano said.
In April, the Bainbridge responded when the Norfolk-based merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. The merchant ship's captain, Richard Phillips, was held hostage for several days in a lifeboat before Navy SEAL snipers aboard the Bainbridge shot and killed three pirates and rescued Phillips. The SEALS were not among the returning crew on Monday.
The Bainbridge also protected another American vessel, Liberty Sun, from a pirate attack.
The homecoming had a festive air as platters of food, drinks and snacks were laid under a tent along the pier. T-shirts and ball caps with images of the Bainbridge were sold. Many families held up homemade welcome signs or waved American flags. One sign read: "We love our heroes."
The Bainbridge, wearing some of the rust and wear of its seven months at sea, was cheered as it came into sight, nudged to its berth by two tugs. Sailors lined the rail as the ship arrived.
Bob Hogan of Newport, Tenn., sat on the pier with his wife awaiting the return of their "homesick" son, Andrew.
"We're very proud of the Bainbridge crew and Capt. Castellano," said Hogan, who also served in the Navy. "They all did their job."
Lt. j.g. Lawrence Nichols, holding his daughter Nala in his arms, agreed. "It's what you train for. We carried out our training. We're just pleased with how it all turned out."
Castellano said he had heard from Phillips since his rescue. They have exchanged letters and a Vermont flag the New Englander sent to the Bainbridge will now be displayed on the ship, he said.
Some Bainbridge ball caps are headed to Phillips, said Castellano, who said he feels a kinship with the merchant captain after their shared experience.
"We'll probably keep in touch the rest of our lives," he said.