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The USS Essex is scheduled to be replaced by its sister ship the USS Bonhomme Richard in an upcoming hull swap.

The USS Essex is scheduled to be replaced by its sister ship the USS Bonhomme Richard in an upcoming hull swap. (Matthew M. Burke / Stars and Stripes)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Iron Gator’s days in Sasebo are numbered.

The USS Essex, a Wasp class multipurpose amphibious assault ship, will be leaving the small south-western base in Japan it has called home since July 2000 in early Spring, replaced in a hull swap with its sister ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard, Navy officials announced Friday.

The Expeditionary Strike Group’s flagship, commissioned in 1992, arrived in Sasebo to replace the USS Belleau Wood in the largest hull swap in Navy history. Since then, the ship has deployed to conflict zones and participated in some of the largest humanitarian relief operations in history, including the tsunami in Indonesia in 2005 and Operation Tomodachi earlier this year.

Due to its participation in Operation Tomodachi, the ship missed scheduled maintenance and was forced to bow out of active participation in bi-annual international exercises last month with undisclosed maintenance issues. The hull swap has been in the works for some time and is unrelated to those maintenance issues, Navy officials said.

The Bonhomme Richard’s homeport is currently Naval Station San Diego, Calif.

“Increasing the capability of forward-deployed naval forces demonstrates the commitment and continuous presence the United States maintains in support of the security of Japan and the Asia-Pacific region,” a news release from the office of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan said. “Upon completion of modernization and maintenance upgrades in 2011, Bonhomme Richard will be the most capable ship of its class.”

The crews and families of both ships will remain in their current locations, Navy officials said. The Essex will then be re-assigned to U.S. 3rd Fleet rotational forces, homeported in San Diego. The hull swap falls in line with the Navy’s long range plan to update the forward-deployed forces with the best ships and gear.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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