Navy ship Peleliu, near retirement, returns for Christmas

The Peleliu is greeted by friends and family of the crew, just in time for Christmas

Slowly, as if to indicate its advanced age, the amphibious assault ship Peleliu moved into its pier-side position Wednesday, home after a seven-month deployment to the western Pacific.

Waiting at Naval Base San Diego were hundreds of cheering family members of the Peleliu's crew, many with signs, balloons, banners, flags and tears of happiness that, despite a typhoon, the big ship had returned in time for Christmas.

Santa Claus was in the crowd. So was a San Diego Padres mascot in a Friars costume.

Alicia Baker, 25, who is married to Petty Officer 3rd Class Bronson Baker, 28, held up her sign: "All I Want For Christmas Is My Sailor."

It made no difference that the Peleliu joined the fleet 34 years ago, or that, after 17 deployments, it is headed for decommissioning in March.

"She's beautiful, just beautiful. She's bringing Anthony home to us for Christmas," said Leslie-Anne Sepulveda, 30, eyes glistening. Her husband is Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony Sepulveda, 27.

Ten-month-old Channing Sepulveda wore a sailor suit. At home, Leslie-Anne had her husband's favorite foods ready: a Doritos casserole and Dos Equis beer.

Sepulveda and other Peleliu family members had worried that the ship's homecoming would be delayed.

On its return trip, after making stops in Japan, Guam and Singapore, it was redirected to the Philippines, where a typhoon had hit. With its helicopters and medical capability, the Peleliu was ordered to stand by for a possible humanitarian relief mission.

And if the Peleliu had missed Christmas in San Diego?

"There would have been tears," said Kathryn Holcomb, 25, wife of Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Holcomb, 26. Their son, Donovan, is 3 months old.

Renee Saenz, 43, whose husband is Senior Chief Steve Saenz, 42, has been through such uncertainty before. She estimated that in 20 years of marriage, she and her husband have been together only five times for the holidays.

Vanessa Raulston, 32, held a sign with her daughter's handprints, and the words: "These Are The Hands That Prayed for Your Safe Return." Her husband, Chief Petty Officer Derek Raulston, 32, has made four deployments: twice aboard ship and once each to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The couple's daughter, 21-month-old Abigail, clutched her "daddy doll" as she waited for her father. "It's been tough for him to be gone, but this is going to be the best Christmas present ever," said her mother.

Even with the Peleliu homecoming, 15 other San Diego-based ships remain deployed during the holiday, including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and the assault ship Makin Island.

Planes from the Vinson are bombing targets in Syria and Iraq. The Makin Island and its support ships carry a battalion of Marines from Camp Pendleton.

Also in the Middle East, serving as a crisis response unit, are Marines from Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Twentynine Palms.

Sailors aboard the Vinson sent home, and posted on YouTube, a video showing them waving, smiling and wearing Santa caps, while a singer provided a song with the recurring line, "next year, I'll be home for the holidays."

On the Makin Island, four chaplains were set for Christmas Eve and Christmas services. On Christmas Day, sailors not on duty will be watching football on television.

tony.perry@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATsandiego

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