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Rear Adm. James Kelly, commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, speaks at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, on Tuesday afternoon during his first visit to the base since taking command nine weeks ago.
Rear Adm. James Kelly, commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, speaks at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, on Tuesday afternoon during his first visit to the base since taking command nine weeks ago. (Greg Tyler / S&S)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Sasebo Naval Base is “the most important strategic” U.S. Navy base in Japan, Rear Adm. James D. Kelly, commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, told about 300 sailors gathered for an all-hands call here Tuesday.

The southern Japan base is closer to the Koreas and China than the other five CNFJ facilities, he said, adding that Sasebo’s location, its harbor’s natural safety and the quality of its port facilities make Sasebo a key site.

Kelly held the all-hands call in the Showboat Theater during his first trip to Sasebo since taking command about nine weeks ago.

“There is more oil, gas and ordnance here than in any other one place in the world. In Sasebo, we guard, provide medical care, places to live, public works, MWR services … everyone who lives here or might have a need to use our facilities. We do a lot of stuff here,” he said.

“Right up front, I love you,” he told the sailors. “Sasebo is a great place, and you’re doing great things.”

In connection with Sasebo’s strategic position, he spoke about the volatility of North Korea and the emergence of China’s navy as a global maritime power or “blue-water Navy.”

“Who do you think is a challenge to their blue-water navy?” he asked. “Us.”

Kelly touched on the recently announced decision for nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington to replace the aging USS Kitty Hawk at Yokosuka Naval Base.

He said the Washington should come to Japan by spring 2008, “giving us greater capability” in accord with the Navy’s aim to keep “the best force we have forward-deployed.”

Of the draft U.S.-Japan agreement to realign U.S. forces in Japan, Kelly said there are “some big moving pieces” including transferring Carrier Air Wing 5 from Atsugi Naval Air Facility to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and relocating Marines from Camp Futenma to Camp Schwab in Okinawa.

Kelly identified manning as an issue that’s “really huge to me.” The 31 tenant commands in Sasebo currently are staffed at about 80 percent — a figure he said should be about 95 percent if “we’re going to be the best we can be.”

“We’ve drawn the line in the sand,” he said, “and we’re stamping our feet” about the manning shortage, a key issue with an operations tempo of about 60 percent.

While visiting Sasebo, Kelly said, he had the opportunity to learn about local “pieces moving on the checkerboard,” including ongoing dredging of the Juliet Basin to create more ship berthing spaces and plans to move Assault Craft Unit 5 in coming years from the Sakibe Laydown Facility south to Yokose Fuel Terminal.

Kelly, who also visited with Sasebo city officials, characterized the relationship between the base and local community as good and stressed the need to maintain that relationship.

He urged sailors to prevent incidents that could mar it by “taking care of your shipmates” and “taking care of yourself.”

“You need to make sure you are not doing that stupid thing out in town that is going to cause an incident,” he told them. “Conduct on liberty counts.”

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