BY LT. J.G. DAVID W. KELTS, USS AMERICA (LHA 6)
The title of “plankowner” is an honor bestowed on few Sailors throughout their careers, but bringing a first-of-class “big deck” warship to life can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. USS America (LHA 6) was built in the Huntington Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the pre-commissioning unit’s (PCU) crew was established. Throughout most of USS America’s life as a PCU, the bulk of the crew was engaged in training, in her future homeport of San Diego as well as in Norfolk. As the first crew, they had to build a command (and Supply Department) from the ground up as they lay the foundation for their ship’s reputation and legacy.
PCU America’s Supply Department led many evolutions in preparation for ship’s custody transfer, the point at which a new ship becomes the property of the Navy. Due to an unscheduled dry dock period, one of the challenges for supply was compressing the crew move aboard schedule, which included stores onload and initiating service operations, from three weeks down to just five days. Working around the clock, the team successfully executed the grand opening of PCU America’s general mess, Wardroom, and Chiefs’ Mess as originally scheduled for crew move aboard Apr. 10, 2014.
In addition to supporting the 1,100 Sailors now living aboard, supply stepped up its focus on both coordinated shipboard allowance list loadout and training toward the critical crew certifications necessary for the ship’s “sail away” from Mississippi. Within three months, Navy Cash® was installed, the ship’s store, laundry, barber shops and post office were opened, and the hazardous material and maintenance material management programs were established. Supply Sailors loaded more than $59 million in parts and consumables, consisting of more than 22,000 line items, as well as food service provisions and retail merchandise worth more than $2 million. PCU America was finally ready for sea and to begin their Fourth Fleet deployment around South America.
Ready for Sea: “USS America Visits the Americas”
Typically, a newly built ship travels from its construction site to its homeport without conducting any operations – a transit, rather than a deployment. PCU America was tasked to set a new standard. Less than three months after taking custody of the ship, PCU America embarked Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group THREE, nearly 500 Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air Group Task Force South, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron TWO ONE and Tactical Air Control Squadron ELEVEN. On Jul. 11, 2014, she shifted colors for the first time, underway en route to her new homeport of San Diego. Just six days after leaving Mississippi, the ship dropped anchor at Cartagena, Colombia, the first of her five port visits.
Over the next eight weeks, the ship made port visits to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Valparaiso, Chile; and Callao, Peru. Time between ports was no time for the supply team to rest, as diplomatic engagements were hosted on board for distinguished visitors from Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and El Salvador, who were all flown out to the ship as she continued her transit nearby. Additionally, PCU America hosted the Secretary of the Navy, Chilean distinguished visitors and military leaders near Punta Arenas as the ship transited the Straits of Magellan. In the end, the ship hosted more than 2,000 guests, including a vice president, a former vice president, seven U.S. ambassadors, multiple foreign ministers, ministers of defense, ministers of state, admirals and generals and countless other distinguished guests from host nations and the United States alike.
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RIO DE JANEIRO (Aug. 5, 2014) USS America (LHA 6) approaches Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, for a scheduled port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Scorza/Released)
PCU America’s Readiness Team was just as busy in successfully expediting critical supplies throughout U.S. 4th Fleet. With no Military Sealift Command support available in the area of responsibility, supply was able to expedite 13 casualty reports and 17 anticipated-not-operationally-ready-supply requisitions through assistance of Commander, U.S. 4th Fleet N41 staff; Commander, Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22 and husbanding support providers throughout South America, and utilized the government purchase card program for critical requirements during foreign port visits. In addition, the Sales Division was busy replenishing stock at local groceries during the final port visits, disbursing division provided foreign exchange services, and material division processed more than 5,000 pounds of incoming mail.
On Sept. 15, 2014, Sailors and Marines aboard PCU America were reunited with their families and friends at the conclusion of the ship’s maiden voyage during a very memorable homecoming event.
The Finish Line: PCU America officially joins the Fleet
PCU America arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 2, 2014, and immediately began preparations for Fleet Week and the ship’s commissioning ceremony. Throughout the week, Supply Department supported countless daily tours. On the morning of Oct. 11, 2014, years of hard work finally came to a head as the rails were manned for PCU America’s commissioning ceremony. More than 10,000 guests were in attendance as friends and families joined together to celebrate the ship’s official entry into naval service. Simultaneously, Supply Department prepped for the ship’s first tiger cruise and return to homeport. On Oct. 16, 2014, the ship reached home and immediately recommenced training for her next set of missions.
As stated by USS America’s Supply Officer Cmdr. Ed Gawaran, “Flexibility, teamwork and resilience were essential to supply department’s success.” Remaining flexible allowed the team to adjust to the many challenges that occurred along the road to commissioning. Teamwork and effective communication within ship’s company and external support elements were paramount to supporting USS America’s achievements. The crew of USS America, on a day-to-day basis, proved their resilience by rising to the occasion of every challenge thrown at them and watching out for every shipmate on the team. These are the elements that brought USS America to life, and will continue to keep her ready for sea!