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Turret ends historic voyage
Straight-backed Navy divers looked on with pride and amazement Friday morning as a 21-gun salute greeted them and their historic prize -- the gun turret from the wreck of the USS Monitor -- at the entrance to Hampton Roads.
The thunderous sound of cannon fire had barely died away when the excited sailors lining the rails of the derrick barge Wotan began to break ranks, pumping their fists and yelling in response to the artillery smoke still wafting across the channel from Fort Monroe.
"I've never been on the other side of a 21-gun salute," said Chief Warrant Officer Rick Cavey, who led diving operations during the six-week-long expedition, as the famous Civil War artifact returned to the waters where it met the CSS Virginia in the momentous first Battle of the Ironclads.
"I know it was for the turret. I know it was for the guys we found inside. But it's still going to take a few days for that one to sink in."
Moored off Lynnhaven Inlet on Tuesday, the 300-foot-barge and its historic cargo began attracting attention immediately, drawing a pair of tourist-packed excursion boats whose passengers cheered and applauded the divers wildly.
The sailors cheered and applauded in return, thankful for contact with the world on shore after weeks of diving round-the-clock in the storm-tossed seas 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
That feeling of isolation started to crack, however, when the barge wheeled into the James River on Friday morning and neared the dock where a boisterous crowd of family members, shipmates, shipyard workers and other onlookers had gathered to greet the $7.1 million expedition's return.
"Hey! It's me! I'm the one jumping up and down!" said one sailor, speaking by cell phone to his wife from the barge's three-story helicopter pad as he surveyed the crowd.
Then he looked over at his equally excited comrades and said, "I guess we're all jumping."
The mood of the sailors turned solemn, however, as they unveiled the turret and hung a replica of a Civil War-era American flag on its armored walls not far from the battle scars inflicted by the Virginia.
Later, after the speeches of the dignitaries on land were over, they lowered the flag -- which had flown over the turret when it was recovered from the Graveyard of the Atlantic on Monday -- and passed it up through the ranks to the expedition's on-scene commander, Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley.
Scholley's symbolic transfer of the flag to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, represented by Monitor National Marine Sanctuary chief scientist John Broadwater, was made with the unspoken understanding that NOAA and The Mariners' Museum -- where the turret will be delivered today -- will take due care of the Civil War sailors whose remains lie inside.
"Those guys are like our shipmates," said Machinery Repairman First Class Ken Riendeau, one of three divers who made the critical descent securing the turret to its lifting platform.
As the ceremony concluded, however, the divers put their own, final stamp on the historic occasion, joining in a chorus-like shout led by Master Diver Scott Heineman.
"Hoo ya! Navy deep sea divers!" they boomed, echoing his command.
"Hoo ya! America!"
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org