NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – Spraying the bubbles from sparkling wine across the enormous gray bow of the USS George H.W. Bush, the Bush family on Saturday christened the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named after the 82-year-old former president.
"I know you join me in saying to our father, President Bush, your ship has come in," the current president said during a ceremony for the last of the Nimitz-class carriers, the CVN 77.
"She is unrelenting, she is unyielding, she is unstoppable," Bush said, lauding the warship's state-of-the-art design before pausing for a punch line aimed at his mother's well-known steely constitution. "Matter of fact, she probably should have been named Barbara Bush."
The elder Bush, a decorated Navy pilot in World War II, joined the armed forces on his 18th birthday, June 12, 1942. "After our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, you simply couldn't find anyone who wasn't anxious to sign up," he told the audience as a heavy rain fell.
"The point is that our nation was totally united against the insidious totalitarian threat against freedom," he said. He added, "In my humble view, we were no greater than the kids that serve today."
The current president said that in the 21st century, "freedom is again under attack and young Americans are volunteering to answer the call."
Doro Bush Koch, the elder Bush's daughter, handled the ritual smashing of a bottle of sparkling wine against the flattop's bow.
Bush father and son and several relatives joined hundreds of others at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard, where the $6 billion, 1,092-foot-long carrier is being built. It is not yet finished and is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in late 2008.
The christening ceremony was scheduled to be nearly two hours long, but deafening thunderclaps, lightning, wind and intermittent heavy rain left the speakers mostly abandoning their prepared remarks to merely introduce the next in line.
With friends, Navy personnel and shipyard workers looking on, the elder Bush choked up during his informal and sentimental address, while talking about the men with whom he served in World War II.
Four of his fellow Navy pilots from the war traveled to the ceremony, an event the former president called the "third happiest day of his life," after his wedding and the day when two of his sons were elected governors.
"This is every naval aviator's dream," he said
The 10th of the Nimitz-class carriers — the largest warships in the world — features technological advancements that make it a bridge to the next generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
On Sunday, the carrier was to be launched from its dry-dock into the James River and taken to an outfitting berth, where work on interior systems will continue.
The former president was the youngest pilot in the Navy when he joined, receiving his commission and naval aviator wings before age 19.
Bush flew torpedo bombers off the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto. In 1944, he was on a mission over the Pacific when Japanese anti-aircraft fire hit his plane. Bush parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine. He later was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his Navy service in the Pacific theater.
Capt. Kevin O'Flaherty, the carrier's prospective commanding officer, is in charge of about 330 sailors now attached to the ship. He said he eventually will be responsible for about 3,000 crew members when the ship is put into service. It is not known where the carrier is to be stationed.