NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) – Former President Bush wrote his initials in chalk on a metal plate Saturday to literally mark the first milestone in the construction of a $4 billion aircraft carrier that will bear his name.

A welder then etched the initials into the plate with a torch during a ceremony at Northrop Grumman’s Newport News shipyard, the nation’s only builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

“I hereby declare the keel of this … U.S. Navy aircraft carrier true and fairly laid,” Bush, a decorated World War II Navy pilot, told the 3,000 invited guests.

Bush started to write his initials, GHWB, on the plate, then wiped them off and rewrote them in larger script. He said he thought the letters in his first effort were too small for the welder.

“A lot of nice things happen to you when you become a former president. People are for you, you know what I mean?” Bush said. “The naming of this carrier has got to be exceptionally special.”

Bush saluted the shipbuilders and those who will sail in the George H.W. Bush. He also touched on the war against terrorism.

“It seems to me that ignoring the threats rising up against our way of life is to shirk our solemn responsibilities,” he said. “Those who doubt our will not only underestimate the resolve of our president, they also sell short the selfless men and women who dedicate their lives in service to the American armed forces.”

The keel-laying ceremony is a tradition dating to the era of wooden sailing ships.

The initials of the guest of honor would be carved into the keel, or timber backbone of the ship, to “authenticate” the keel.

With modern modular construction techniques, the carrier does not have a true keel. The plate with Bush’s initials will be attached to one of several hundred steel pieces that workers are putting together to form the ship’s outer structure.

Also attending the ceremony were former first lady Barbara Bush and the couple’s daughter, Doro Bush Koch, who is the ship’s sponsor and will christen the carrier.

President Bush, Bush’s son, did not attend.

Bush, who at 18 became the Navy’s then-youngest pilot, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after his torpedo bomber was hit by the Japanese during a 1944 mission over the Pacific.

On Saturday, Bush wrote his initials below a plaque with the letters CAVU, which stands for “ceiling and visibility unlimited” – a phrase indicating clear skies, Koch said.

“My father doesn’t talk a lot about his World War II service, but I do know that these four words are important to him,” she said. “It is what he hoped for when he was a pilot, and it’s what he has now in his life today.”

The carrier has been under construction since 2001. The country’s 10th Nimitz-class carrier, the Bush is expected to be ready to join the Navy’s fleet in 2008.

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AP-ES-09-06-03 1715EDT

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