Let’s face it: Once you step into a new car – or even a previously-owned vehicle, as used-car dealers say – it’s just not exciting to drive older wheels. Classic rebuilt cars, the exception of course. Trading down just isn’t fun.
So we can feel for the sailors and officers of amphibious assault ship Essex, who this spring took the Wasp-class big-deck Bonhomme Richard from their home in San Diego, Calif., and swapped hulls in Japan, where they exchanged ships and even the official Facebook pages with their Sasebo-based counterparts in the Navy’s latest scheduled hull swap. The San Diego-based crew returned to California May 17 aboard Essex, while the Sasebo crew took ownership of Bonhomme Richard and prepared for upcoming patrols in 7th Fleet. Essex arrived on time, but not before colliding with the oiler Yukon as the ship prepared to take on fuel. Repairs, as well as the investigation, are underway.
The BHR, as some call it, last year completed a major overhaul, a shipyard drydock period that included upgrades to berthing areas, new advanced controls for its boilers and some reworking to accommodate the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft the Marine Corps plans to base in Japan.
Essex, meanwhile, has spent the past 12 years in Japan, where duty with 7th Fleet means shorter, but more frequent, deployments than stateside ships usually have – but without the significant shipyard maintenance periods where crews and workers can really spend time and get their hands and eyes on the ship and its innards. Recent years have seen maintenance problems cropping up even as the ship has gotten underway for patrols in the region, and Essex isn’t alone in the aging fleet in suffering from fewer maintenance dollars and high operational tempo.
The Navy decided to send one of its most updated Gators, the BHR, to replace it in Japan, and give the 21-year-old Essex its much-needed rest and repairs back in the states so the ship can continue to serve in San Diego and operate with 3rd Fleet. (The Navy also has little choice, considering the shrinking size of the overall fleet, including its amphibious Gator community that Marines rely on to get them where they need to go.)
But before that happens, Essex and its crew are slated to participate in the high-visibility “Rim of the Pacific” exercises off Hawaii this summer. Essex will be the big deck among 42 ships participating. After that, the crew will get the ship – and themselves – ready for the drydock phased maintenance availability expected to run 52 weeks. In a February interview, Capt. Chuck Litchfield, Essex’s skipper and former executive officer of BHR and, briefly, Essex, lauded the San Diego crew for the work getting Bonhomme Richard through a successful yard period and sea trials ahead of leaving for Japan, “and I expect to be successful again.” The past year was focused on preparing for the hull swap and crew taking on Essex, eyes wide open. “A new ship is something that you have to learn,” he said.