Atsugi helicopter squadron follows ships home from Gulf
July 28, 2003
ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan — After 177 days at sea and six months away from family and friends, 20 Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 51 air-crew members returned home from the Persian Gulf on Friday night.
Four helicopters appeared in Atsugi’s overcast skies about 5:30 p.m. They touched down on the flight line one at a time. Seconds later, when the engines quit, spouses toting kids and balloons ran out to embrace the weary warriors.
“It’s good to be home,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Mills, a pilot and officer-in-charge of HSL-51’s Detachment 5.
In all, HSL-51 gets back 45 of its members: the maintainers were due to arrive at Atsugi on Saturday after the USS Gary and USS Vandegrift pulled into Yokosuka Naval Base following a six-month deployment.
The maintainers are the last sailors from Atsugi to return to Japan from Operation Iraqi Freedom, officials said.
All the aircraft are “coming back dry and everyone’s coming back alive, and that’s a successful deployment,” said Navy Cmdr. D.H. Fillion, HSL-51 commanding officer.
The sailors left in January expecting a four-month deployment, said Petty Officer 2nd Class William Smouse.
But after combat operations in Iraq officially ended in May, the SH-60B Seahawk helicopters were called on to escort allied prepositional ships and supply vessels in the Red Sea and Straits of Hormus — the entrance to the Arabian Gulf — among other missions, Mills said.
Their task: to protect ships from small-boat suicide attacks.
The sailors flew in the Navy’s most advanced SH-60B birds, which were equipped with infrared sensors, torpedoes and machine guns, said Lt. Cmdr. Neil Lipscomb.
Mills called the missions, flown mostly at night, challenging. Crews had to fly low over the water, wearing night-vision goggles and employing “forward-looking” infrared to spot small, unlit vessels with no radar, he said.
Smouse said sailors from the two detachments also engaged in “pirate hunting” off the coast of Africa and in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf after the war.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Dobbins said the helos and their crews played an important role during the war: “We escorted a Marine Battle Group in. They were the ones that went into Iraq and did their stuff,” he said.
One detachment from HSL-51 was assigned to the USS Gary during the deployment, while the other was with the USS Vandegrift — the last Yokosuka ships to return from Operation Iraqi Freedom. HSL-51 provides combat-ready helicopter detachments aboard ships from Yokosuka, providing the first line of defense when the vessels are out to sea.
While waiting for the helicopters to land, spouses tried to contain a mix of excitement and nerves. The almost daily bad news from Iraq of more soldiers dying in sporadic attacks didn’t faze them, some said.
“I think if you got up every single day and thought, ‘Oh my God,’ you wouldn’t survive the six months by yourself,” said Laurie Drenning, 29.