There are nearly 300 ships in the U.S. Navy. Each of those ships are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week with Sailors standing watch from top to bottom. Normally, when a Sailor checks into a command, qualified watchstanders are there to stand the watch until the new check-in gets qualified. But what happens when no one is qualified? What happens when you have to take ownership of a new ship with a brand new crew? This is just one of the many challenges pre-commissioning units (PCU) face.
PCU America (LHA 6) is the Navy’s newest amphibious assault ship. She is the first of the America-class, which is replacing the aging Tarawa-class. It is capable of supporting more than 2,500 Sailors and Marines as well as the most advanced Marine Corps aircraft.
Like previous PCUs, America has been faced with the task of manning a new class of ship, learning to use its systems and is in charge of its protection.
In 2008, Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding began building America in Pascagoula, Miss. Four years later, as the end of the ship’s construction was in sight, Sailors from all over the world began receiving orders as members of America’s commissioning crew. More than half of all of the crew assigned are first-term Sailors with no shipboard experience. The remainder of the crew is just the opposite – the amount of 1st class petty officers and chief petty officers on board is nearly double that of comparable amphibious assault ships in the fleet. The ship’s top-heavy manning ensures every Navy and shipboard program is established and working before commissioning.
While the ship was being built, Sailors arriving to the command were immediately given training schedules that included basic ship familiarization, shipboard communications, damage control, specialty schools for ship’s programs, and weapons and force protection training.
“It’s been an all-hands effort to train,” said Lt. Timothy Sheptock, America’s security officer. “Since the beginning, we have been preparing to take possession of the ship, and from a security standpoint, complete the anti-terrorism force protection Afloat Training Group (ATG) assessment to certify that the crew is capable of defending the ship, if necessary.”
Most of the crew received weapons and security reaction force training at schoolhouses in San Diego and Norfolk. There Sailors learned weapons handling and reaction force training, including room clearing and team movements, vehicle inspection procedures and basic security watchstanding protocol.
“The training I received at the schoolhouses in San Diego was very thorough, practical, and I’ve used every ounce of it since I moved aboard the ship and began standing watches,” said Information Systems Technician Richard Potts.
Although most of the crew was sent to schoolhouses to learn weapons handling and security protocol, America’s leadership also sent Sailors to other amphibious assault ships on the San Diego and Norfolk waterfronts to qualify as watchstanders. The goal was to qualify America Sailors to stand watches prior to moving aboard the ship.
“We basically used every available amphibious ship in the Pacific Fleet to help us qualify personnel,” said Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Allan Thomas. “In addition, we also stood up a quarterdeck at the PCU building in Pascagoula where we helped qualify Sailors as messenger of the watch, petty officer of the watch and officer of the deck.”
On April 10, 2014, the America crew marched to the ship where the Navy officially accepted custody of America from Ingalls Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries. More than 900 Sailors, led by Capt. Robert A. Hall Jr., the ship’s commanding officer, marched in ranks, singing cadence through the shipyard. After marching aboard, the official custody transfer ceremony began, during which, Hall gave the order to “set the watch.”
As the first watch was set, the responsibility of defending America became the crew’s. After nearly two years of training, America qualified more than 500 weapons handlers and watchstanders. Each qualified Sailor was ready to do his or her part to protect America.
“Defending the ship is a huge responsibility,” said Sheptock. “We are not just defending the ship itself, but all the Sailors on board from the captain to the most junior seaman.”
The ship was then manned and ready, and the qualified Sailors on board were ready to take on the next huge challenge – helping to train and qualify the remainder of the crew. Since America was limited in the number of qualified personnel at move aboard to man the ship 24 hours a day; seven days a week, some Sailors were standing more than one watch each duty day.
“As we took possession of the ship, many Sailors were initially standing multiple watches a day,” said Thomas. “It’s not something that we wanted to do, but we knew before we moved on board that it was a necessity. [After rigorous training and qualification efforts] we now have enough watchstanders to meet our needs without having to double up watches on people.”
“The first few weeks on board were challenging,” said Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class (AW) Javier Keyser. “The mission comes first, and we did what we had to do. Everyone knew that standing multiple watches was very likely.”
The remaining Sailors needing to qualify at different watchstations on board now had a platform on which to train. Unlike the first Sailors to qualify, they would train on America. With a platform in place, the command would now only have to overcome one obstacle – transiting to a suitable gun range for weapons training.
The nearest range authorized for the PCU’s initial weapons qualification is two states away at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, located in Pensacola, Fla. America coordinated with the range and made the two-hour drive 18 times to provide initial qualifications and sustainment shoots for more than 500 Sailors.
The coordination with the gun range was done by the command’s gunner’s mates (GM) who play a critical role in protecting America. The gunner’s mates maintain administrative paperwork for all watchstanders, conduct maintenance on all of the ship’s weapons and arm and de-arm every Sailor standing a watch.
“The biggest challenge we consistently face is manning,” said Gunner’s Mate 1st Class (SW) Isaac Schmoker, armory leading petty officer. “We man the armory 24 hours a day; seven days a week.”
Schmoker also explained that conducting maintenance on all of the ship’s weapons is a huge challenge. During the course of a typical month, the armory conducts more than 1,000 maintenance checks. In addition, every GM on board conducted the maximum amount of maintenance allowed per day for the first two months after the crew moved aboard.
With the crew now trained and qualified to carry the weapons, and the gunner’s mates diligently maintaining the weapons, the next step was to ensure the ship had enough ammunition for all the weapons on board.
Since the crew took custody of the ship, America’s Weapons Department has worked tirelessly to ensure the magazines on board would be ready to house ordnance. Recently, the ship received 20 pallets of ordnance for its upcoming maiden voyage.
“The primary ordnance we are taking on is small-arms ammunition for force protection,” said Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class (AW) Christopher Rivera, the ships ammunition accountant. “It took us about four hours and roughly 65 personnel to complete the onload. That includes safeties, elevator operators and personnel working in the magazines to properly stow it.”
With ammunition on board and the watchstanders trained and ready, America was now ready for the final security test – the anti-terrorism force protection Afloat Training Group (ATG) assessment. This final challenge would certify America to leave the shipyard and begin her transit to her San Diego homeport.
The assessment consisted of a four-part comprehensive inspection of personnel weapons qualification records, instructional training and scenario-based drill assessments. More than 300 Sailors were put to the test as they were evaluated in all facets of security protocol and force protection.
“Everything went really well during the assessment,” said Sheptock. “We scored 100 percent on the administrative portion, 100 percent on the final evaluation and an overall score of 99 percent.”
Sheptock explained that the success of this assessment was an all-hands effort that started as personnel first began checking into the command, and that training continued as the PCU gained personnel and opportunities expanded.
“I think we have taken advantage of the training opportunities that we’ve had,” said Sheptock. “We have had training every duty day, and that is important, especially at a pre-commissioning unit. This is a brand new crew, and many of our Sailors have never been on a ship before. Even some of our master-at-arms have not been on a ship before, so there is a learning curve for everyone; we have to train to overcome that.”
America Sailors train six days a week on force protection and security protocol. Much of the training is running drills and placing Sailors in scenarios, so they will know how to respond in the event of a real threat.
“We run drills so we are able to respond to our most likely threats,” said Sheptock. “Based on how we perform during different drill packages is how ATG certifies that we are ready to leave port and protect and defend ourselves should we need to.”
The assessment’s overall success was also due to the personal commitment made by each member of the reaction force team.
“Our team has a saying,” said Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class (AW) Javier Keyser, a security reaction force team member. “The saying is, ‘don’t train until you get it right; train until you can’t get it wrong.’ We normally have one hour blocked off each duty day for training, but we usually always end up training for longer to ensure that every member of the team is comfortable performing in each position for every scenario.”
“All three of the teams that ATG assessed did very well,” said Sheptock. “They also said that the reaction force team that was assessed was one of the best they had ever seen.”
The training on board America has prepared the crew to defend the ship, and in turn, defend the country. The ship is scheduled to be commissioned Oct. 11, 2014 in San Francisco and will be homeported in San Diego.