NORFOLK, Va. — It's the perfect gift for an old Navy flier: 1,092 feet of flattop.
"What do you give a guy who has been blessed and has just about everything he has ever needed?" asked President George W. Bush from aboard the Navy's newest ship. "Well, an aircraft carrier."
The USS George H.W. Bush, a steel-gray vessel longer than three football fields and built at a cost of $6.2 billion, was commissioned Saturday with its namesake, the 41st president, and other members of the Bush family on hand for the ceremonies at Naval Station Norfolk.
Adorned for the day with red, white and blue bunting, the USS George H.W. Bush is one of the Nimitz class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the largest warships in the world.
"The ship that bears our dad's name is more than 95,000 tons of aluminum and steel," Bush said from a podium tucked under the flight deck. "She will carry nearly 6,000 of the finest sailors and Marines in the world. She represents the craftsmanship of many skilled builders, and thousands of hours of preparation."
Bush, who took his last scheduled flight aboard Air Force One to get to Norfolk, added: "Laura and I are thrilled to be here to help commission an awesome ship and to honor an awesome man."
It was the ultimate honor for former President George H.W. Bush, a decorated World War II pilot.
The former president recalled the day 65 years ago in Philadelphia when he attended the commissioning of the USS San Jacinto, a light carrier on which he served during the war. It was during that trip, he said, that he gave his fiancee, Barbara, an engagement ring.
"I thought that the San Jac was by far the biggest ship, or anything else, I'd ever seen," said the elder Bush, comparing it to the massive aircraft carrier, spit and polished for its unveiling. He marveled at its 4.5-acre landing field, a tower that reaches 20 stories above the waterline and its 1,400 telephones.
Speaking to the sailors preparing to serve on the new ship, his voice quavering at times with emotion, the former president said: "I wish I was sitting right out there with you, ready to start the adventures of my naval aviation career all over."
Bush, 84, joined the Navy on June 12, 1942, his 18th birthday and six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war he flew torpedo bombers off the USS San Jacinto. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his service.
On a mission over the Pacific in September 1944, Bush's plane crashed into the ocean after being hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The future president parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine. He returned to combat and served until the end of the war.
The Nimitz class of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was first launched in 1972. The USS George H.W. Bush is the 10th and final vessel of its type.
A bronze statue on its hangar bay deck depicts the former president as a youthful, smiling pilot in his flight suit. On an upper deck, a "tribute room" presents Bush's life from his days in the Navy to his four years in the White House.
No other former president has visited a carrier named after him. Ronald Reagan was the first living ex-president to have a carrier named in his honor, but he was unable to visit the vessel before he died.
Doro Bush Koch, the president's sister and ship's sponsor, had the honor of bringing the carrier to service, calling out: "Man our ship. Bring her to life." With that, hundreds of sailors charged up gangplanks as a band played "Anchors Aweigh," the song of the Navy.
Four F-18s flew overhead, followed by a solo World War II torpedo bomber similar to the one the elder Bush flew during the war.
The president's daughters, Jenna Hager and Barbara Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, were among the throng of attendees. Also on hand were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine.