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The prospective 6th Fleet flagship USS Mount Whitney took the first step toward its new life Friday when it transferred to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command.

The Mount Whitney is expected to take over flagship duties from the Gaeta, Italy-based USS La Salle early next year, with 6th Fleet staff members moving aboard when it arrives.

The Mount Whitney, an amphibious command ship, had most recently served as the flagship for the Norfolk, Va.-based 2nd Fleet.

The new flagship will bring a crew of 143 civilian mariners and 157 sailors to Gaeta, replacing Mount Whitney’s original complement of 576 sailors, according to MSC public affairs officials in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Of the original crew, about 512 Navy personnel now remain aboard and 60 civilians have since joined the ship.

The Whitney soon will undergo a two-month shipyard period at Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. The work will include the addition of MSC-specific navigation systems and the automation of some other systems to support the reduced crew size, as well as modifying living spaces for MSC’s civilian mariners.

When Mount Whitney leaves the shipyard in December, it will head to sea for a shakedown cruise to test its new equipment and train shipboard personnel. It will return in mid-January to Norfolk.

The new civilian mariners will be responsible for navigation, seamanship and other deck-related functions, operation and maintenance of engineering spaces, food and hotel services and other supply functions.

The remaining Navy crewmembers will handle communications, weapons operations, provide medical services and provide some supply functions.

Though part of MSC, the Mount Whitney will remain a commissioned Navy warship, as is the other MSC-run flagship, USS Coronado. Both have, or will have, civil service crews but are commanded by a Navy captain. They are the only two MSC ships to have active-duty commanders.

The Coronado normally serves as the 3rd Fleet flagship, based out of San Diego. Coronado most recently spent almost six months as 7th Fleet flagship in Yokosuka, Japan before turning flagship duties back to USS Blue Ridge on Monday.

Members of the 2nd Fleet staff are expected to use the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima as its new flagship. About 80 members of the 350-member staff will embark the Norfolk-based Iwo Jima, with the remainder remaining at their shore-based Norfolk headquarters, according to a 2nd Fleet news release.

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