SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — After leaving in early September for the North Persian Gulf, the Essex Amphibious Ready Group likely will return to Sasebo the middle of next week to a heroes’ hoopla not seen here since the 1999 return of the USS Belleau Wood from a six-month operation in the Middle East.

The USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Juneau served seven months with other coalition forces as part of Task Force 50 to support ongoing operations in Iraq. After more than four months, the Essex shifted missions and assisted with humanitarian efforts in Indonesia in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated South Asian coastlines.

About 2,000 Okinawa-based servicemembers of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed with the ARG were to return Saturday to White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa. The Okinawa personnel conducted security and stabilization operations in western Iraq, Marine officials said, ending their mission with 221 troops injured and 50 killed.

The Navy routinely withholds specific future dates of ship arrivals; however, many activities planned for returning sailors are set to begin Wednesday.

Emily Baarson, a Navy spouse married to Lt. Cmdr. Rob Baarson of the USS Juneau, is the local manager of the Navy Federal Credit Union. The credit union is providing a full day of free movies at the Showboat Theater on the main base April 9, she said.

“It has been so interesting because it’s not like any other deployment we’ve experienced before … they were gone … coming back … extended. I’ll believe he’s back when I see the whites of his eyes,” Baarson said Wednesday.

“Overall, I don’t know what to say except that we are so excited,” she added. “It just seems surreal that he’s actually coming home.”

For about a month, Sasebo’s Chief Staff Officer Bernard P. Wang and leaders of other base departments met to plan the welcome-back extravaganza.

“In the States, when ships go on deployments for months in real-world situations, they always come back to festive heroes’ welcomes. It should be no different just because we are in Sasebo, Japan,” said Wang, chairman of the group coordinating more than a week of special activities.

“They are coming back and will be treated like the heroes that they are,” he said Wednesday.

From the home-cooked potluck dinner planned the day the ARG arrives, to sports tournaments and United Service Organizations activities, much of the community is involved.

“Everybody is very excited and there will be a lot of events,” Wang said. “And it’s important to remember that this is a community effort; it takes a whole community.

“People from all the base departments, tenant commands, community groups and individuals are involved,” he added.

The Essex is the flagship for Commander Amphibious Squadron 11. Along with the USS Fort McHenry, the rescue and salvage ship USS Safeguard, and the minesweepers USS Guardian and USS Patriot, the Essex ARG operates from Sasebo in southern Japan.

Welcome Home events

Day 1:

¶ Ice-cream social sponsored by the Sasebo Navy League Council.

¶ Sasebo’s U.S. Naval Forces Japan Regional Fire Department to offer water salute at India Basin entrance.

¶ Command Task Force 76 greets ships on arrival.

¶ Concert at Galaxies Club.

¶ Japan Ground Self-Defense Force taiko drum performances — noon through 4 p.m. with 15-minutes breaks each hour.

¶ Taxi services offer first 500 yen free for returning sailors going from base to local areas.

¶ Public Works Transportation shuttle services from Nimitz Park to India Basin Berth 1 will operate and stop at main base.

¶ Block party from Galaxies Club to the Bayside Food Court along California Drive.

¶ Refreshment booths; Sparky, Moose and McGruff will be present.

¶ Navy Exchange sponsors local vendor booths. The NEX booths will be on Ohio Boulevard, separate from the event area.

¶ Morale, Welfare and Recreation offers coupon books for all returning sailors.

Day 2:

¶ Various MWR tours are slated, scheduled in advance with MWR representatives on the ships.

¶ MWR sponsors registration for various sports leagues — basketball, soccer, softball and flag football. The games begin the first week after the ships have arrived to allow time for registration and forming teams.

¶ Bowling, basketball, billiards and burgers bash set for Devil Dog Park next to the Spare Time Recreation Center and sponsored by the base command.

Day 3:

¶ Various MWR tours are slated, scheduled in advance with MWR representatives on the ships.

¶ MWR Sports Day to include Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and JGSDF competing in soccer, softball, sand volleyball, the home run challenge, softball throwing and the Punt, Pass and Kick Contest.

¶ MWR Sports Leagues include basketball and softball.

¶ MWR is sponsoring arm wrestling at Galaxies. It’s also “Mullet Night” at Galaxies.

¶ Used-car sale with more than 100 vehicles displayed in the Public Works Department Garage and sponsored by the Sasebo Council of the Navy League of the United States of America.

Day 4:

¶ Various MWR tours scheduled in advance with MWR representatives on the ships.

¶ Galaxies is sponsoring a “Spring Break” with two bands: UVR from the States, and Subject to Change from the USS Essex, in Nimitz Park.

¶ Athletics is sponsoring a Sports Day with the JMSDF and Navy teams in conjunction with “Spring Break.”

¶ Free movies from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on the main base, sponsored by Navy Federal Credit Union.

Day 5:

¶ Various MWR tours scheduled in advance with MWR representatives on the ships.

¶ BBQ Day sponsored by the Defense Commissaries Agency. MWR will host sports and paintball in conjunction with BBQ Day.

¶ Used-car sale.

— Stars and Stripes

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