BY CMDR ANDREW TROUT, SC, USN, SUPPLY OFFICER, USS WASP (LHD 1)
USS Wasp (LHD 1) began transiting from Norfolk to Sasebo, Japan on Aug. 30 for a scheduled homeport shift, to take over duties as the amphibious assault ship for the Navy’s Forward Deployed Naval Force. We left Norfolk knowing we were being sent to Japan to project influence over the Pacific theater with the nation’s newest strike fighter aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II. The Marine Corps is the first service in the Department of Defense (DoD) to deploy the F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter. The Wasp and 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were selected to deploy as the Navy/Marine Corps team’s showcase for the new Joint Strike Fighter program as the F-35 began its operational life in naval aviation.
As the ship began the transit to the Pacific, we never imagined we would play such an integral role in supporting the humanitarian relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the island nation of Dominica.
Wasp’s transit to Japan was scheduled to take approximately 63 days. Having gone through the mid-cycle assessment and numerous inspections with Naval Surface Force Atlantic and Naval Air Force Atlantic, our supply department was ready for both the transit and the upcoming challenges of being a forward-deployed unit. We planned appropriately and our food service division (S-2) was loaded for our two-month voyage to Japan. Our readiness divisions took the transit time to plan ahead for logistical challenges awaiting Wasp in the 7th Fleet and prepared for challenges due to minimal support in South American ports, no Military Sealift Command assets available to leverage during the transit, and unknown demands on the oldest LHD in the Navy.
The first week during our transit was relatively quiet. However, we soon realized that the Caribbean hurricane season would have a significant impact on our transit to Japan when we were rerouted to avoid Hurricane Irma.
Immediately after Hurricane Irma made landfall on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Wasp, along with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22, became the first responders tasked with surveying the damage and assisting with any medical emergencies. Additionally,
Wasp was tasked with performing greatly-needed patient transfers from St. John and St. Thomas to a functional medical facility in St. Croix. Overall, HSC-22 flew 98 hours evacuating 126 American citizens, moving 160 Department of State and DoD personnel, and moving 4,850 pounds of relief supplies and equipment. As the situation in the U.S. Virgin Islands stabilized, Hurricane Maria was increasing in size off of the coast of South America.
Wasp was directed to support Dominica after being ravaged by Hurricane Maria. Again, Wasp acted as the first responder and was tasked with evacuating American students from Ross University School of Medicine. Additionally, Wasp participated in the evacuation of Dominica’s citizens to the nearby islands of Guadalupe and Martinique. Supporting the mission in Dominica was more complicated due to the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief mission vice the Defense Support of Civil Authorities on foreign soil. The mission had a specific scope and was coordinated through U.S. Southern Command and not part of the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) operation in support of U.S. citizens. We were reassigned to help with the relief efforts in Puerto Rico after one week in Dominica.
Wasp’s mission shifted back to Puerto Rico as the primary focus of effort, and was one ship in a growing naval task force that would include more than 4,500 Sailors from the ships USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) as well as the 26th MEU and other supporting commands. The mission was led by Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2 Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes and his staff who reorganized into Commander, Task Force (CTF) 189 under USNORTHCOM as Joint Force Maritime Component Commander. CTF-189 actual, embarked on Kearsarge, was tasked in recovery operations and relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. CTF-189 was the largest portion of the DoD presence supporting Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency, to help those affected by Hurricane Maria in order to minimize suffering.
Due to the damage done by Hurricane Maria to the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, Wasp embarked four additional squadrons including detachments from HSC-5, HSC-7, Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 14, and HM-15 to strengthen the aviation arm of CTF-189 that included the bulk of naval aviation deckload in the region.
The anticipated collapse of the Guajataca Dam near the town of Quebradillas in the northeast region of Puerto Rico, had the potential to make the situation on the ground disastrous. The Guajataca Dam, which had approximately 70,000 Puerto Ricans living in the vicinity, became unstable and had eroded to the point of potential collapse. Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wasp embarked heavy lift assets from HM-14 and HM-15 to assist in strengthening the dam with jersey barriers to prevent additional damage and flooding to the communities adjacent to the dam.
Wasp supported recovery efforts and conducted 244 medical evacuations, delivered more than 4.6 million pounds of relief supplies, cleared approximately 100 miles of routes, flew approximately 1,600 flight hours for defense support to civil authorities, and treated 1,250 patients aboard the Comfort. The actions and quick ramp-up of operations of the Wasp’s supply department played a significant role in the humanitarian efforts.