The USS Iwo Jima and the USS Fort McHenry, along with their 1,300 sailors, will arrive at their new home port of Mayport Naval Station on Sunday, Aug. 17.
The two ships will join the USS New York — a vessel that landed here in December — to complete the three-ship San Antonio Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG.
“We are excited,” said the Iwo Jima’s commanding officer, Capt. Jim McGovern. “We found out about coming down to Mayport in June of 2012 and shortly after we found out we started getting orders from sailors who were already in Mayport who wanted to come to the ship.
“Mayport has a great reputation and the folks in North Florida have a great reputation for supporting the Navy.”
With America’s role in large land wars winding down, the Amphibious Ready Group is fast becoming a valuable tool in the U.S. military.
The group has the unique ability to operate close to shore, land Marines and special operations soldiers along with aircraft including helicopters, V-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys and Harrier jets.
The ships also have the ability to operate independently, as the USS New York showed in June when it took part in the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected terrorist behind the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others.
“The amphibious force has long been known as the 911 force of the military,” McGovern said.
The Iwo Jima is the flagship of the group and is by far the largest. Its flight deck gives it the appearance of a small aircraft carrier.
Along with military might, the ships also represent a significant boost to the local economy and ship repair industry — something that was sorely needed.
“When I came here in 1977 as the executive officer of the readiness support group, at that time we had two carriers and 28 destroyers in the harbor,” said J. Michael McGrath, executive director of the Jacksonville Area Ship Repair Association. “So there was a massive downturn.
“Of course we were talking then about 30,000 sailors on base and we got down to 8,000 in 2013.”
With the decommissioning of Mayport’s aging frigates, the new ships are a boost to the local ship industry.
“The ARG is what we’ve counted on,” said McGrath. “2013 was a very hard, down year for the ship industry here in Jacksonville.
“The loss of the frigates made it a very hard year for us.”
McGrath said the arrival of the New York helped make 2014 better, but the ship repair industry has been waiting for the Iwo Jima and the Fort McHenry.
“We’ve had a number of new companies that have joined the Jacksonville Area Ship Repair Association,” McGrath said. “We’ve added five or six in the last month or so.”
Local businesses will also likely reap the benefits with the influx of thousands of new sailors.
“It’s not only an increase in the number of ship repair jobs, but will also help people in the local area whether it be stores, laundries, restaurants, they’ll see an uptick because of the increase in sailors,” he said.
In addition to the Iwo Jima group, the Navy also announced this week that six littoral combat ships will be coming to Mayport in 2016.
The six ships will bring another 900 sailors and support personnel.
“With all of us working together, I see a brighter future for Mayport and for the industrial base here at Mayport,” McGrath said.