Amphib Warship Bonhomme Richard Back Home in San Diego

The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) arrives in San Diego, May 8, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Nancy C. diBenedetto)
The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) arrives in San Diego, May 8, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Nancy C. diBenedetto)

The Bonhomme Richard is back home in San Diego, more than six years after it left to become the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious assault ship in the Western Pacific Ocean.

Carrying a crew of nearly 1,200 sailors, it sidled up to pier 2 at Naval Base San Diego on Tuesday morning, moored near its sister warship, Boxer.

The "Bonnie Dick" had served as the flagship of the Japan-based 7th Fleet's expeditionary strike group before being replaced by the Wasp in January.

"I have probably the best crew in the United States Navy," said Larry "El Mac" McCullen, the commander of the Bonhomme Richard. "I'm obviously a little biased in saying that, but they have done incredible work."

Operating in the bustling Western Pacific at a very high operational tempo since mid-2012, the warship participated in numerous training exercises alongside the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and friendly forces from Thailand, Australia, Japan and Singapore.

The Bonhomme Richard conducted search and rescue operations after the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea and provided humanitarian relief after Japan's Kumamoto earthquakes two years later.

Perhaps the saddest day for the crew came on Aug. 5, when an MV-22B Osprey launched from the Bonhomme Richard crashed in Australia's Shoalwater Bay during a training exercise.

Three Marines from the "Dragons" of Japan-based Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 died.

The deaths of the Marines came in between twin collisions with merchant vessels by the Japan-based guided-missile destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain. Those mishaps claimed the lives of 17 sailors, two of them from San Diego County.

"That was challenging," McCullen said. "The Marines, when we embark them, become part of our family. We have a very family-like environment on the Bonhomme Richard and although it wasn't on our ship when the mishap occurred, we were there, on station and ready to help out.

"And the good news in that whole story is that 23 Marines came home that day. We lost three and we'll never forget those Marines and the sailors we lost this summer in the forward-deployed naval forces."

Bonhomme Richard avoided the sea calamities because of a constant emphasis on safety, McCullen said.

"Three words -- train, train, train," said McCullen, who "fleeted up" more than a year ago as Bonhomme Richard's executive officer to become the skipper. "You have to train to the operating environment. You have to have a focus on the mission and operating safely. Safety is our No. 1 priority."

McCullen's warship bears the name of John Paul Jones' renowned Continental Navy frigate. Although outgunned by the larger HMS Serapis during the 1779 Battle of Flamborough Head, Jones refused to surrender, famously shouting "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!"

With the aid of another American warship, Jones defeated the British vessel, boarded it and seized it.

Commissioned in 1998, today's Bonhomme Richard is slated to participate in this summer's Rim of the Pacific war games and then enter a repair yard in the fall for an extensive refurbishing.

The modernization is designed to allow the vessel to launch the Marines' new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, a capability already fielded by the Wasp and the San Diego-based America.

As for McCullen, he's slated to leave the warship after RIMPAC to take the helm of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

That gives him the chance to apprentice on the weekends at a Maine Christmas tree farm he bought, "fleeting up" to take over operations after he retires a few years from now.

"And I'll send a Christmas tree to the Bonhomme Richard every year," he said. "I found out that you can send a Christmas tree in the mail. Can you believe that?"

This article is written by Carl Prine from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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