WESTERN PACIFIC (NNS) -- On July 8, 1776, perched in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House, a 12-foot copper and tin bell called to attention the residents of Philadelphia. The Declaration of Independence was to be read publicly for the first time by Col. John Nixon.
With the words "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. (Leviticus 25:10)", engraved on its side, the Liberty Bell's chimes settled upon the gathering crowd, securing its destiny to resonate throughout time as a beacon of freedom. For 44 years, the men and women of the "Liberty Bells" of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 115, have echoed the message of liberty as the forward-deployed Airborne Early Warning (AEW) squadron of Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5).
On Nov. 16, an E-2C Hawkeye, assigned to VAW-115, launched from flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) for its final flight on the forward deployed aircraft carrier. On June 1, VAW-115 embarked USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) to return to the United States after 44 years as the forward-deployed AEW squadron.
"The Liberty Bells have served in CVW-5 since the Air Wing moved to Japan onboard USS MIDWAY (CV 41) in 1973," said Cmdr. Matthew Ventimiglia, VAW-115's commanding officer.
"We are sad to see them go," said Capt. Michael Wosje, commanding officer of CVW-5. "The Liberty Bells are a vital asset to the air wing and we are proud of their accomplishments in the FDNF [forward deployed naval forces]. They set the standard for squadrons to follow and it was a pleasure flying alongside them."
VAW-115, which is slated to relocate to Point Mugu, California, has patrolled the skies of the Pacific Ocean and Middle East since 1973, providing carrier early warning, airborne battle-space management, and command and control functions to the forward-deployed naval forces (FDNF) carrier strike group (CSG).
"The Airborne Early Warning and Command and Control (AEWC2) capability that the Liberty Bells provided, and that VAW-125 now provides, to Carrier Air Wing Five has been essential to the success of CVW-5 and CTF 70 [Commander, Task Force 70] for 44 years," said Ventimiglia. "Whether it's keeping sea lanes of communication open or responding to the latest world crisis, the Liberty Bells delivered the only sea-based AEWC2 capability in FDNF."
The role of providing battle-space awareness includes surface surveillance, air interdiction, offensive and defensive counter-air control, close-air support coordination, time-critical strike coordination, search-and-rescue coordination and communications relay.
According to Ventimiglia, even though VAW-115's mission has evolved, it hasn't changed much since 1973.
"It's interesting," said Ventimiglia. "In many ways we do the exact same thing, we just do it better than we did when we got out here. Reading through the squadron histories in the 1970s, they focused on things like air-intercept control, data-link management and employment, passive-detection system usage and information fusion. The fact is, that hasn't changed much. We just do it is more thoroughly, more effectively and faster. I think that's a testament to the importance of the mission and a testament of the aircraft."
Over the course of their FDNF history, the Liberty Bells flew missions supporting the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, rescue and salvage operations following the shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, freedom of navigation operations in the Sea of Japan as well as protecting Kuwaiti tankers through the Straits of Hormuz in 1985, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991, enforcing a no-fly zone over southern Iraq during operation Southern Watch throughout the remainder of the 1990's and into the early 2000's until they were called to duty to support Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and command and control support of Operation Tomodachi in 2011.
Operation Tomodachi was the emergency support operation to Japan providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following the magnitude 9.0 offshore earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011. Operation Tomodachi took place from March 12, 2011 to May 4, 2011 involving 24,000 U.S. service members, 189 aircraft, and 24 naval ships. The U.S. Navy delivered 260 tons of relief supplies to affected areas.
"It was probably the most rewarding mission I've ever done and it was as simple as there was no infrastructure and no air traffic control," said Lt. Cmdr. Glenn Smith, VAW-115's safety officer. "We had the Reagan there, sitting off the east coast with CVW 14 [Carrier Air Wing 14]. The Hawkeye squadron embarked on Reagan at the time was VAW-113, the Black Eagles. Helicopters were bringing blankets, water and food to the people and the Hawkeyes, us and the Black Eagles, were effectively the only way to coordinate."
In 2013, the Liberty Bells once again answered the call to provide support of Operation DAMAYAN, a multi-national response to the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The Liberty Bells provided command and control infrastructure for the U.S. military and Philippine government while coordinating the delivery of 119,000 gallons of water, 600,000 pounds of food, 2,800 pounds of medical supplies, and transport of 6,552 evacuees and relief workers.
"We were the first Hawkeye to get airborne," said Lt. Hunter Fahey. "We were there to provide an ATC (air traffic control), or similar, structure. Initially, we were talking to Marine C-130's and then eventually we got into the role of being the communications relay for the helos that were distributing medicine, food and water. Their comms [communications] couldn't reach the ships so we were the ones who took down all the information and passed it back to CAG's [CVW-5] watchstander down in CVIC [carrier intelligence center]. Basically we went up and set station and sat overhead the bay for about 4.5 hours. All of the land on the eastern side of the Philippines, the trees were laid out flat. It was surreal seeing the devastation. There were little villages that were annihilated. They were just piles of rubble. It initially didn't register how important it was, but if it wasn't for us there would have been no rhyme or reason for where we were delivering things. We kept track of everything to make sure supplies were being distributed and that people were getting evacuated the right way. It wasn't until down the road that I realized that we did some pretty awesome work that I think saved many lives."
Additionally throughout the years, the Liberty Bells aided in the cultivation and expansion of military partnerships through combined and joint exercise participation boasting an outstanding 30-year record of more than 60,000 hours of class-alpha, mishap-free flight operations. During their years of FDNF operation, VAW-115 embarked aboard USS Midway (CV 41), USS Independence (CV 62), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63), USS George Washington (CVN-73), and ultimately USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in August of 2015.
"The transition went relatively smoothly," said Ventimiglia. "Teamwork is the key to aircraft carrier and air wing teams operating safely and effectively. During the hull swap, the USS Ronald Reagan was led by Capt. Chris Bolt, a former Liberty Bell CO [commanding officer] and Carrier Air Wing Five was led by Capt. John Enfield, who had done multiple tours in the FDNF. They set the tone for a quick and successful transition."
Just as the Liberty Bells and Ronald Reagan began to work together, on Oct. 18, 2015, shortly after getting underway on patrol, aircraft number 600 caught fire in Ronald Reagan's hangar bay.
"The CVW-5 and USS Ronald Reagan Sailors who fought the fire did so with the utmost bravery," said Ventimiglia. "The Liberty Bells were first on scene and kept the fire from not only spreading to other aircraft, but saved the airplane which is currently being refurbished at NAS [Naval Air Station] North Island. We finished the fall 2015 patrol with 3 aircraft which was taxing on our maintenance personnel, but through their hard work, we still made every sortie."
According to Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Boucher, from Weatherford, Texas, it's the attitude and drive of the squadron that carried the Liberty Bells through.
"Time and time again I've watched everybody here staring adversity down," said Boucher. "They never hang their heads and they never get down. They just stand up tall and they say 'I've got it'. And they get it done every single time."
"It takes a lot of hard work just to keep the planes we have up and running," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Rodriguez, from New Castle, Indiana.
While embarked aboard Ronald Reagan, the Liberty Bells flew 778 sorties totaling 2,226 flight hours supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
"Thank you to the ship and to the Air Wing," said Ventimiglia. "Thanks for the teamwork. Thank you for the support. And thank you to the Sailors and Officers in VAW-115 for their hard work and dedication."
For many, VAW-115 is the place to be.
"I'm at 16 years and some change in the Navy and half of my career has been sitting right here at VAW-115," said Boucher. "And I know there are multiple people here that are on their multiple tours here at VAW-115. We come back because we love this squadron and we love being part of CAG [Carrier Air Wing] 5. There's no other place like it."
To make for a smooth transition of watch, certain individuals have been identified to help get their replacements up to speed.
"It's a heck of a legacy that 115 is leaving here," said Petty Officer 1st Class David Cerankowski, from Pueblo, Colorado. "It's gonna be some big shoes for 125 [Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 125] to fill."
"When I watch them go it's going to be sad," said Boucher. Every person, every Sailor in this squadron are some of the most phenomenal individuals I've had the pleasure of working with. To be a part of it has been an honor."
According to Ventimiglia, the decision to relieve the Liberty Bells of their FDNF watch was a result of the U.S. strategic rebalance to the Pacific.
"When the Tiger Tails [VAW-125] joined Air Wing 5, the Reagan Strike Group and CTF70, the Liberty Bells made it our mission to ensure they were prepared for success," said Ventimiglia. "We provided training and assistance across all departments and the Tigertails are picking up where we left off. While the Liberty Bells are sad to leave Atsugi, and Japan, we are excited to about our new adventures in Point Mugu."
Before their departure the Liberty Bells flew over Mt. Fuji for the final time. Once again, the chimes of liberty settled upon a gathering crowd echoing that beacon of freedom. Fair winds and following seas VAW-115.
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