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Navy crews swap ships during Sasebo ceremony

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Sailors in Sasebo officially said goodbye to the 7th Fleet workhorse USS Essex in a hull swap ceremony Monday afternoon.

The Essex, a Wasp class multipurpose amphibious assault ship that has called the small south-western base home since July 2000, will leave in about a week, Navy officials said. The Essex, which will head to its new home at U.S. 3rd Fleet rotational forces in San Diego, has been replaced by the USS Bonhomme Richard.

As the ships switched places, the crews and families of both vessels stayed put.

“This is a very proud day for the Essex,” the new skipper of the Bonhomme Richard, Capt. David Fluker, said as he stood in front of his new ship. Fluker said that for 12 years, the Essex had been the focal point of U.S. Navy amphibious assault forces in the region. “It’s time for her to go.”

The Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship that had a starring role in the Navy SEAL film “Act of Valor,” recently underwent $147 million in upgrades to its structure, network, and stability controls for rough seas that make it the most capable and potent amphibious assault ship in the Navy, Vice Admiral Richard W. Hunt, Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, said at the ceremony.

It was also modified to support U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys, which will come to Okinawa most likely by the end of the year.

As the curtain closes on the Essex’s stay in Sasebo, sailors remembered the ship for its toughness in the face of a high operational tempo. The 21-year-old flagship of the forward-deployed Expeditionary Strike Group 7 often missed maintenance appointments due to its steady service. It had recently skipped two scheduled commitments at sea in seven months due to maintenance issues and now will be refurbished in San Diego.

“As old as she was, she’s a tough old girl,” Lt. Cmdr. Doug Kennedy, former operations officer for the Essex, said as he took reporters on a tour of the Bonhomme Richard.

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As the ceremony began, the crews of both ships were mixed together in front of the Bonhomme Richard, bathed in the warmth of the sun. Hunt lauded the crew of the Essex for sending her on her way after a “job well done.”

Sailors said they looked forward to the upgrades that the Bonhomme Richard has to offer but said it will take some time to get used to the change.

Petty Officer 1st Class Lorenzo Pereyra, who works in the medical facilities, said that the Essex seemed to have more room to wheel patients around in the operating room, but the Bonhomme Richard’s technology is surely an improvement.

“The Essex is configured a little differently as far as how it’s laid out,” Pereyra said.

The Essex leaves Sasebo after providing humanitarian relief to Indonesian victims of the 2004 tsunami, survivors of the Leyte mudslide in the Philippines in 2006 and victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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