The USS Pearl Harbor stopped in its namesake port this weekend as it concluded a Pacific deployment—its last for awhile as the ship prepares for a round of repairs and upgrades.
The Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship was participating in the 18th iteration of the Navy's Pacific Partnership, a series of annual deployments focused on humanitarian operations and disaster response. It was in Pearl Harbor for a supply and refueling stop after completing the deployment, but departed Tuesday for its home port in San Diego.
Capt. Claudine Caluori led the deployment, which saw 1, 500 service members from eight countries sailing aboard the Navy's USS Pearl Harbor and USS Jackson, as well as the South Korean navy's ROK Cheon Ja Bong and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's JS Shimokita. Caluori described it as unlike other missions she has led at sea.
"Normally we're out patrolling, we're out doing exercises with our partners and allies, " she said. "But this was just an incredible mission to ... get on a personal level with folks and at the same time really go and learn from each other."
The Pacific Partnership has its roots in the U.S. response to the aftermath of the deadly December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of South and Southeast Asia, during which the U.S. mobilized military assets and personnel to support the relief effort. Since 2006 the Navy has deployed medical personnel, engineers and other specialists around the region for aid programs as well as disaster preparedness initiatives.
"A lot of our junior sailors and officers and chiefs, they got to learn a lot about the geopolitics in the area, " said Cmdr. Sameer Khanna, captain of the USS Pearl Harbor. "We got to do U.S. embassy visits (and ) we got to actually hear from the people in those regions, what their concerns were."
This year saw a significant expansion. USS Pearl Harbor's deployment began in August and spanned 11 countries. But before its return, the Navy launched the 19th iteration of Pacific Partnership as well, deploying the hospital ship USNS Mercy to the region in October. It's the first time the Navy has sent two Pacific Partnership groups during the same year.
"We actually overlapped in a couple of ports, " said Caluori. "So while we were in Fiji, they were in the Marshall Islands, while we were in Tonga they were in the Solomons."
Mercy's deployment began not long after the Chinese navy wrapped up a summer deployment of its own hospital ship Peace Ark to Oceania. Over the span of 79 days this year the ship and its crew visited Kiribati—an island nation south of Hawaii—as well as Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.
Chinese state-run news outlet Xinhua reported that the Peace Ark and its crew "used boundless love and superb medical skills to serve as messengers of health, peace and friendship " during what it called a "pragmatic " mission. The U.S. and China have been competing for influence across the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia, but U.S. officials have insisted the two Pacific Partnership deployments this year were planned well before they knew anything of Peace Ark's.
The USS Pearl Harbor and the rest of the Pacific Partnership task force did a variety of missions and exchanges across the region.
"We were able to do something different in each country, " said Capt. Joe Dransfield, a British Royal Navy officer who served as the mission's deputy commander. "We went to Vietnam, we talked about protection from forest fires, in the Philippines they were more interested in post-tsunami search and rescue. So it is really tailored to the host nation so they get the most out of the great skill sets that we've got."
Capt. Jon Beadsmoore, a New Zealand navy officer that served as the mission's multicultural coordination cell leader, recalled a diving symposium in Malaysia.
"They were actually getting in the water and diving and learning about how each other work, " he said. "They've got the U.S. Coast Guard, there were Royal Navy divers, Malaysian fire service divers, who are all likely to come together after a tsunami or a disaster potentially working together."
Khanna said that one of the things that stood out to him was "you can tell there's a lot of concern in all these countries about climate change and environmental things."
Dransfield said that in Tonga service members helped local people plant mangroves near homes after they learned from them that "houses which had mangroves in front of them survived if they got flooded, and if it didn't have mangroves (they ) got washed away."
In other places, challenges—and fears—were different. Dransfield said a farmer in Fiji told them "it's not tsunamis they worry about, it's just inundation of saltwater coming up underneath the ground potentially and trashing what were fertile fields, and now they've got to find higher ground to plant their crops on."
Several service members participating had ties to the region. Beadsmore recalled that when a New Zealand navy sailor from Tonga went ashore that "everywhere we went in Tonga, I think every event, we met one of her cousins."
Several sailors assigned to the USS Pearl Harbor also have ties to Hawaii. Petty Officer 2nd Class Memphis Kealohihaili was the sailor behind the wheel on the bridge as the ship sailed into port Friday. He said that he'd joined the Navy to get away from Hawaii and try something different. The Navy stationed him in Japan for years, with the Pacific Partnership being his first real deployment.
"This is the first time in three years that I've been home, " he said. "When I first got assigned to the ship, it was kind of a surreal thing. And then coming here to Hawaii on the Pearl Harbor—and being in Pearl Harbor—it's kind of touching for me ... when we pulled in I ran off the ship quite literally and just spent the entire weekend with my family."
Ensign Madison Kwok's grandfather witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor firsthand. After the attack he tried to join the military, but was turned down because of his Japanese heritage. She said that serving on the USS Pearl Harbor was meaningful to her, explaining, "I think its awesome that I get to be here, in partnership with a country like Japan almost 100 years later, it's just a really awesome mission."
After taking a brief leave on Oahu over the weekend, the crew of the USS Pearl Harbor set sail for San Diego with most Hawaii sailors aboard saying they don't expect to make it back to the islands for the holidays. But before leaving Oahu, Seaman Ioana Roberts—a Kahuku High School graduate—said she wanted to give a "shout out " to the Kahuku Red Raiders, which this year was one of the country's Top 10 high school football teams.
This deployment had been slated to be the USS Pearl Harbor's last, with the ship—which launched in 1996—scheduled to be retired next year. But the Navy has extended its service life and it will go into what one sailor on the ship called a "much needed " period of maintenance work.
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