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Cheers, tears greet Camden

The rising sun glared blindingly off the rippling surface of Puget Sound as the USS Camden’s enormous hulk loomed into view.

While still some 10 miles away, Port Orchard’s adopted ship dominated the horizon, making the shuttling auto ferries appear as ants next to a hungry frog. But even a ship that big is not invulnerable — police boats and naval yard tugs gathered at the entrance to Rich Passage, ready to escort and protect the Camden.

The Camden had been at sea for 10 months, providing support and supplies to battleships and aircraft carriers in the Middle East, before it sailed into its home moorage in Bremerton early Monday morning.

The ship, with its 550-member crew, was supposed to return in December after a six-month stint, but was instead redeployed to the Middle East in preparation for the war against Iraq.

Therefore, it was not just the unseasonably sunny weather that led the crowds to gather at every available piece of waterfront along the passage, waving and shouting and blowing whatever noisemakers they could find.

“I just love what (the sailors) are doing,” said Port Orchard resident Marianne Mayer, who grabbed a spot on the Port Orchard waterfront to watch the ship come in. “It’s fabulous and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted them to know I support them big time.”

Mayer was not alone in her feelings. On-lookers waved American flags of every size and displayed welcome-home banners.

Nearly two dozen private boats braved the early morning sea air to surround the Camden with a flotilla of cheering, horn-blowing support as it entered Sinclair Inlet.

Just in case the well-wishers got a little out of hand, two Puget Sound Naval Shipyard police boats and Port Orchard’s brand-new police boat set up a 100-yard security perimeter around the Camden.

The greater danger, however, probably came from drivers along waterfront streets in Bremerton who visibly slowed to take in the spectacle.

Even traffic on the Manette Bridge ground to a near-halt as motorists tried to catch a bird-eye glimpse of the Camden’s arrival.

Several auto and passenger ferries were delayed by the Camden, which at many times took up the entire passage with its bulk and secure buffer zone. However, few commuters seemed to mind.

Many gathered on the upper decks to wave and take pictures as the vessels squeaked by each other.

“I only moved here from Utah a year ago and I’ve never seen one of these,” said Port Orchard resident Idell Larsen, who parked along Beach Drive waiting for the Camden to appear. “It’s very exciting and I really felt like I wanted to come out here and say thanks and ‘welcome home’ to these people.”

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