Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the 7th Fleet commander, will be changing command next week aboard the USS Blue Ridge at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the 7th Fleet commander, will be changing command next week aboard the USS Blue Ridge at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. (Vince Little / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, preparing to turn over command of the 7th Fleet, said he’s most proud of the strengthened ties between the U.S. Navy and navies in nations such as Japan, South Korea and India.

“My counterparts in those navies were willing to take on new endeavors and in some cases, take on the risks to work with us side by side,” he said in an interview Thursday with Stars and Stripes.

Greenert also reflected on other highs – and a few lows – of his two years at the helm and on the Navy’s task ahead in the western Pacific.

“I would’ve liked to have taken our interoperability with Southeast Asian nations a little further … establish more navy-to-navy operations, most particularly in Indonesia … That window is still open,” he said.

On Tuesday, he’s to hand over leadership of the world’s largest forward-deployed naval force to Vice Adm. William D. Crowder aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the 7th Fleet flagship.

Greenert will become the Navy’s chief financial officer. Crowder, who’ll be the 7th Fleet’s 45th commander, arrives from the Pentagon, where he was assistant deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operations.

Calling Yokosuka the “foundation of the U.S. Navy in Asia,” Greenert, who became the 7th Fleet commander in August 2004, said America’s image around the base was severely tested during his two-year tenure. The Jan. 3 beating death of a 56-year-old Japanese woman by a USS Kitty Hawk sailor “took a dramatic withdrawal out of our goodwill account,” he said.

“It was a tough day,” he recalled – but as tough days went, the USS San Francisco’s Jan. 8, 2005 collision with an undersea mountain was “right behind it.”

After the killing, Greenert said, “We had to step back, reflect and say, ‘What is our image going to be from here on out with Yokosuka and the Japanese people?’… We decided we would start this relationship almost over again. … We had to build that trust and confidence again.”

“I’m personally satisfied with the efforts our personnel have applied to look at our behavior,” he added. “It’s more than just looking at the police blotter.”

The USS George Washington’s arrival to replace the Kitty Hawk in 2008 likely will cause more anxiety among Japanese. But Greenert said he believes the transition can be smooth.

“We have to continue to reassure and show the Japanese people that nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are safe,” he added “ … It will improve security to Japan and northeast Asia. The perceived risks are quite small; the return … is quite substantial.”

Greenert, who led U.S. sailors and coalition forces in more than 200 operations and exercises during his tenure, said shared U.S. and Asian goals, such as clearing shipping lanes of pirates and terrorists, is key to theater security.

“Southeast Asian nations are getting together to discuss common interests in regards to security. That was not there when I entered my tour,” he said. “ … There’s a common need for all of us to have free and open seas for maritime security and economic development.”

North Korea and its threat of short-range and ballistic missiles has become a focal point of the U.S., Japanese and South Korean navies, Greenert said, but the reclusive communist nation’s arsenal of submarines and mines also pose maritime threats.

Greenert said he developed close ties with Vice Adm. Eiichi Nakashima, who retired three months ago as Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force commander in chief.

“He’s a guy who is courageous and willing to take prudent risks … for what he believed was for the common good of the JMSDF,” Greenert said. “It was an honor working with him.”

Greenert called his job as commander “a dream come true.”

“It’s hard to imagine I’ll find a job that’ll be more fascinating than what I’ve experienced the last two years.”

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