Excitement builds up before Sailors even set foot on the pier. You can hear the excited chatter of family and friends, feel the anticipation in the air, and see the colorful array of homemade signs and t-shirts among the crowd awaiting the arrival of their Sailor.
MAYPORT, Fla. (Nov. 23, 2014) Family members and friends of Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) wait for the Sailors to depart the ship during a homecoming celebration at Naval Station Mayport. The ship returned to its homeport of Mayport, Fla., following the completion of a nine-month deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Wiss/Released)
The energy rises significantly as the ship approaches homeport and those gathered on the pier see the crew "manning the rail," standing side-by-side in their dress uniforms, lining the perimeter of the ship. According to "Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions Sixth Edition" by Royal Connell and William Mack, manning the rail is a very old custom dating as far back as 1596. Dr. Roger Marbecke wrote in his manuscript at the time of the English Cadiz Expedition that crews would "presently man the ship and place every one of their companies both upon the upper and middle deck - to make the bravest show and appear the greater number" when returning to homeport. Ships are also decorated with banners and flags that make for an even more stunning display as they pull into port.
When a ship pulls alongside the pier, the deck gang - he group of Sailors who handle the lines - heaves over the lines which are received by those on the pier. Once the lines are secured to pier, the ship is considered moored, and the ship's colors are shifted to her in-port colors. The phrase, "Moored! Shift Colors!" is traditionally exclaimed to let the crew know the ship is secured and back on solid ground. "Shift Colors" means the flags of the ship have gone from her at-sea flags to her in-port flags signaling to the crew that the ship has been made fast to the pier and they have returned to solid ground.
Next, the brow comes down and loved ones wait on the pier for their Sailors to return to their arms. The order of liberty varies from ship to ship, but typically the Sailor who won the raffle for "first kiss," another homecoming tradition, disembarks first. "First kiss is typically a fundraiser raffle. This starts to gain momentum around halfway through the deployment," said Liann Lofton, former ombudsman for USS Philippine Sea (CG 58). Following the first kiss winner are new dads who are meeting their newborn babies for the first time, another very special moment during the return to homeport. After first kiss and new dads, it's liberty call for the crew. In the past, the tradition has been that the crew is released by rank - highest to lowest. While that is still sometimes the case, it's not unusual to see ships change the order or do away with it all together.
The spirit and excitement of a Navy homecoming wouldn't be nearly as eventful if it weren't for the many volunteers of a command's Family Readiness Group (FRG) and communication efforts of the ombudsman. Veronica Cordova, who served as the FRG president for the USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) from 2011-2012, remembers planning for homecomings long before the awaited date.
"Within a month after the ship left, we had our first Homecoming Committee meeting to start getting helpers." Cordova said. "We felt it would be good to give spouses/families the opportunity to focus some energy on homecoming from the start." The Homecoming Committee organizes meetings throughout the duration of a deployment to help make things, like signs, for the day the ship returns home. "We have five to seven wooden sandwich board signs along both sides of the main road on base leading to and from the pier," said Cordova. "Signs and banners are a very visual part of many homecomings, and it is a tradition that is enjoyed even before the event takes place. We have a sign making party for families to make their own signs," added Cordova.
Another fun preparation for homecomings is the tradition of lei making. In some commands, the FRG gets together to make a giant lei made of many trash bags that the ship will receive when she returns home. "It could be considered a bonding, teamwork exercise for the spouses back at home," said Lofton. "Typically, red, white, and blue colors are used, or all white. There are occasions where a lei is borrowed from a sister ship if the FRG is not active." No matter the length of the deployment, homecomings are often among the most memorable events in the lives of Sailors and the friends and families who love them. Many ships and family readiness groups strive to make them as special as possible. In addition to the above traditions, other homecoming highlights have included:
- Releasing a flock of doves
- Having DJs on hand to provide entertainment
- Dressing someone in a costume of the ship's mascot
- Tents on the piers with refreshments or cover from the elements
In addition to work done by Family Readiness Groups to make homecomings special, there are also a whole host of services available through Fleet and Family Support Centers for all stages of the time underway including pre-deployment readiness, thriving during deployment, operational stress control training and a variety of programs to help ease the transition after loved ones return from lengthy deployments. Call your local Fleet and Family Support Center for details.
When you're part of the U.S. Navy family, homecomings are as, if not more, important than the traditional holiday celebrations. We know families have many unique traditions they do to celebrate their Sailors arrival home. What are some of the things we've missed that your family does each time your Sailor comes home from protecting and defending out great nation? Share them in the comments below!