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Grounded minesweeper decommissioned at somber ceremony

About 150 sailors, their families, friends and members of the Sasebo community piled into Sasebo Naval Base's Harbor View Club on March 6, 2013, to say goodbye to the USS Guardian, which was lost on a reef off the coast of the Philippines on Jan. 17. Salvage efforts to remove the ship are ongoing. Here, CTF-76 commander Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harley lauds the Guardian's crew for their heroism following the grounding.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The USS Guardian’s crew were hailed as heroes during a somber decommissioning ceremony Wednesday for the grounded Navy minesweeper. As the ship was eulogized in absentia and officially laid to rest, CTF-76 commander Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harley lauded its crew and leadership for performing heroically in the dark, with no power, as the Guardian took on water after striking a reef off the coast of the Philippines on Jan. 17. They saved the ship from further immediate damage; no men were lost.

Approximately 150 sailors, family, friends and community members joined the crew at Sasebo’s Harbor View Club to say goodbye to a warship that once swept 29 mines following the start of the Gulf War. The ship’s bell adorned the stage.

“It’s a story of extraordinary heroism by each and every member of this crew,” Harley told Stars and Stripes prior to the ceremony. “In extraordinary circumstances after running aground, they worked together to ensure each other’s safety, to ensure minimal environmental damage to the reef and to ensure the safety and security of the ship. Each and every person has an individual success story that I would call heroic.”

While Navy officials and crew members gathered to celebrate the Guardian’s proud history, sadness hung over the funeral-like ceremony. Voices wavered and faces were stoic.

The ship’s pennant was lowered one final time and placed inside a time capsule with mementos and personal effects of sailors and captains past and present. A video showed the Guardian throughout her storied career.

“The ship alone does not merit greatness,” Guardian commander Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice told the crowd. “It is the blood, sweat and tears of her crew that has maintained her the past 23 years. The magnitude of dedication to accomplish the mission while keeping her sea-ready and ultimately the selfless willingness to fight her in the end.

“I’ll never forget the heroism on display by you, the crew of the USS Guardian, as we evacuated our ship,” Rice said, his voice wavering at times. “Your actions are responsible for all 79 of us coming home.”

No one was injured when the Guardian ran aground around while transiting the Sulu Sea. The 79 crewmembers were removed the next day as a safety precaution.

For more than a month, the 224-foot ship slid around on Tubbataha Reef, damaging the World Heritage Site and causing further hull breaches.

The grounding sparked protests outside the U.S. Embassy, and Philippine officials have called for the U.S. Navy and government to pay stiff fines. Navy officials have said the ship is a complete loss and removing it will cost about $25 million.

Work to dismantle and remove the ship from the reef began Feb. 22. Salvage operations are expected to be completed by March 23, though various factors could affect that target.

Harley announced late last month that the crew would be reassigned to the USS Warrior, another Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship that is en route to Sasebo from Bahrain.

With the grounding still under investigation, the crew was barred from discussing it at the decommissioning ceremony.

Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Sexton of Colorado had served on the Guardian for a little over a year and half when it ran aground.

“It was a good ship,” he said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it.”

The Guardian was commissioned in 1989 and had been stationed in Sasebo since 1996, Harley said. It has received a Navy Unit Commendation, two Meritorious Unit Commendations, six battle efficiency awards, a Combat Action Ribbon and the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

“As this ship retires, we know her memories will live beyond her through the sailors who served on her,” Harley said addressing the audience. “I ask you to look at her as a proud lady, gracefully retiring, knowing that her job has been done well to the last moments of her life. Rest well Guardian; you have earned your peace.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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