Former Sasebo skippers now command carrier
Stars and Stripes June 10, 2003
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The USS Kitty Hawk skipper fondly recalls his Sasebo tour as an amphibious assault ship skipper.
“Turbo” — Kitty Hawk boss Capt. Tom Parker — still likes to stay in touch via e-mail with former Sasebo commanders “Fozzie” and “Harv.”
Friends occasionally tease Capt. John Miller — who commands the aircraft carrier USS Constellation — about similarities to the Muppets character Fozzie Bear. And Harvard graduate Harv, Capt. Ronald Henderson, commands the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy.
Among the Navy’s 12 active carriers, their ships are the only three powered by fossil fuel. And each is commanded by an officer who commanded an amphibious ship in Sasebo.
Coincidence? Not really.
Miller and Henderson formerly commanded the USS Juneau; Parker steered the USS Belleau Wood and USS Essex. Miller was the first to move to a carrier command. He also tutored Parker, the newest carrier commander of the three, from September 2002 through January 2003 on the Constellation.
It is a coincidence, Parker explained, that none of the three opted for acquiring the qualifications required to command a nuclear-powered carrier. “I’m sure that Harv and Fozzie would agree,” the Virginia Military Institute graduate quipped. “There’s nothing as cool as a conventional carrier.”
In part, Parker attributes some of his professional growth to the high operational tempo among Sasebo’s amphibious force ships.
“The hallmark of the FDNF (Forward Deployed Naval Force) is that we operate anywhere from 180 to 215 days a year underway. You get to be really good at what you do, because you are constantly doing it at sea,” he said.
Forward deployed ships have to be at “a higher state of readiness,” he added. “What the Kitty Hawk did in the Gulf will become the model for what other carriers do in the future. The Kitty Hawk went through a major surge to get out there, fight for three or four months, then come back. You have to be ready.”
Miller, too, credited the operational tempo. “Sasebo is a great place to have deep draft command. The ships homeported there are extremely busy and spend a great deal of time at sea, so experience comes quickly,” he said.
“Deep draft” refers to a ship’s underwater depth. Carriers have deep drafts — and maneuvering them takes practiced skill.
“Both of the ships in Sasebo that are O6 commands,” or skippered by someone of captain’s rank, “are ‘deep draft’ ships, meaning the people who command them are eligible for, and tracking toward, carrier command,” Miller said.
Affectionately known as “America’s Flagship,” the Constellation weighs 88,000 tons, carries 72 combat and support aircraft and is home to 5,000 sailors and Marines.
“Ninety percent of command is about people,” Miller said. “In that regard, this job is very much the same as command of the Juneau. But this job is bigger in scope … more people, bigger ship, more missions.
“The fundamentals of good seamanship and airmanship remain the same, but there are more balls to keep in the air here,” he added. “Carriers are also a little less personal — sort of like the difference between small town living and big city living.”
Henderson, who followed Miller as Juneau commander, said, “By U.S. law, the COs of aircraft carriers must be naval aviators or naval flight officers. To gain large-ship command experience, a potential carrier CO serves as the captain of a smaller yet still large deck.” Sasebo is homeport for two such ships, the Juneau and the Essex.
Amphibious warfare exercises also provide essential carrier training. “Working with embarked Marine forces,” Henderson explained, “is good experience for the carrier challenge of working as a team with an embarked air wing.”
The main difference is “the sheer size and depth of responsibility that comes with command of an aircraft carrier,” he said. “The difference is not one of character, but of magnitude.”