SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Following a summer of upgrades and maintenance, the USS Essex is under way in the Sea of Japan with a new skipper.

The amphibious-assault ship left Sasebo’s India Basin pier on Aug. 22 with Capt. Jan M. van Tol in command. He replaced Capt. Ronald R. Evans during a change-of-command ceremony that day.

Van Tol came to the Essex from the Office of the Secretary of Defense in Washington, having served as the senior military assistant to the net assessment director.

Before taking the helm in April 2002, Evans served as the ship’s executive officer. His next assignment is assistant deputy director for information operations with the Joint Staff in Washington.

“The ship is under way … testing systems — combat information, engineering — that were repaired during SRA [Selected Restricted Availability],” said Lt. j.g. Jereal Dorsey, a Commander, Amphibious Task Force 76 spokesman.

After testing, the Essex and its crew will assume a role as an Expeditionary Strike Group flagship, leading several amphibious ships, an Aegis-capable cruiser and destroyer, a frigate and a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Repairs and refurbishing of the 845-foot multipurpose amphibious-assault vessel cost $15.2 million.

Along with a crew exceeding 1,000 sailors, more than 200 high-tech equipment contractors from the United States and Japanese workers from Sasebo’s Ship Repair Facility completed about 2,400 upgrades and maintenance tasks.

The biggest challenge was organizing and scheduling the jobs, said Cmdr. Bill Edge, who coordinated the effort.

The work included laying new non-skid surfacing on the 820-foot flight deck, hangar deck and aircraft elevators, he said. Flight deck lighting, electrical power and aircraft landing systems also were replaced.

A 232-rack berthing area was also overhauled and crew lounges were refurbished and outfitted with high-speed Internet connections, computer desks, bookshelves and entertainment centers.

Workers overhauled a major boiler and installed a multi-circuit digital patch panel for communications, according to a report issued by CTF-76.

“There’s more personal space in the berthing,” said Airman Elizabeth Karnofsky of V-3 department, part of the aviation division. “The lounge is nice, too, because it’s a closed-in area. So if people want to stay up and watch TV, they can just close the door and the noise won’t bother anybody.”

Representatives from the Naval Air Systems Command field office at Yokosuka Naval Base inspected the Essex in August.

In an Aug. 12 CTF-76 report, the Essex was determined fit for the seas.

“If we don’t get certified, we’re not able to fly,” Chief Petty Officer Vick Smith, an aviation boatswain’s mate, said in the report.

The Essex also completed Aviation Readiness Qualification, which requires the crew to conduct several drills, including flight deck, fuel pump room and hangar bay firefighting.

Ensign Paul Dussault, the aircraft handling officer, said sailors drilled every day for several weeks before the inspections.

“It’s like a play,” he said. “You put everyone in place and you practice, practice, practice.”

The Essex crew successfully qualified for ARQ at a level that puts them well ahead of their certification schedule, the report said.

The Essex’s schedule as a forward-deployed ship was a hurdle in planning maintenance and upgrades.

“Our SRAs come fast and furious. We operate right up until the week before the SRA starts,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bill Carroll, ship superintendent. “The ship is back out operating and training the week that it’s over. The time crunch comes into play a lot more here than it does in the states.”

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