KWAJALEIN, Republic of the Marshall Islands (NNS) -- Mariners are evaluating the effectiveness of the ship that has been carrying Pacific Partnership 2009, an annual humanitarian and civic assistance mission nearing its completion this week.
Military Sealift Command (MSC) dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4) brought Pacific Partnership 2009 to five major sites - Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Republic of Marshall Islands - this summer, demonstrating not only the multi-mission capability of the U.S. Navy and MSC, but also their flexibility to adapt and deliver.
In May, Richard E. Byrd was suddenly called upon to serve as the primary platform for the three-month deployment after crew members from the originally scheduled ship, amphibious transport dock USS Dubuque, was pulled from that mission.
This was the first time the Richard E. Byrd, or any ship of its class, would participate as the enabling platform for Pacific Partnership. The new assignment brought with it new responsibilities, new requirements and new challenges. The crew had a lot to consider, and preparation took a great deal of time, planning and organization by the Civil Service Mariners (CIVMARS) aboard.
"There were a few things we had to address right off the bat, but the biggest challenge we faced initially was finding berthing for the extra mission personnel," said MSC Capt. Jonathan Olmstead, ship's master.
"The ship was not designed to carry over 198 people, and our total complement with mission folks plus ship's crew came out to 245, so we had to make adjustments."
There was no getting around the fact that the ship had to make more room, which was accomplished by using a variety of solutions.
To start, the ship's crew was downsized as much as possible. Some of the deck department and supply department billets were removed, freeing up accommodation space. U.S. Army cots were brought in to augment the rooms already available, and in some cases nearly doubling their capacity.
"Once we had made enough room we had to re-write the station bill in the event of an emergency and get everything approved by the U.S. Coast Guard," said Chief Mate Fredrick P. Cullen III.
"It all took a lot of cooperation from the crew members, I tip my hat to them for maintaining their level of enthusiasm from the very start of this mission. They deserve a lot of credit."
Once space was available, next down the list of mission-critical necessities was finding a way to store enough provisions. Because the mission takes place over the course of three months in some very isolated areas, food and fuel were major concerns.
"Most MSC ships normally only carry one month worth of provisions, but because this was a unique situation we knew we weren't going to be able to count on any support along the way," said Olmstead.
"We've basically just been burning fuel out of our cargo tanks, which we normally provide to other customers. As far as food, we loaded three months worth of provisions, meaning that without any re-supply we could feed everybody on board for three months."
A reverse osmosis machine was also brought on board to create fresh water from sea water while at anchor, augmenting the ship's evaporation system.
"The evaporators don't make water unless the ship is moving through water at a certain speed, so while you're at anchor the evaporators can't make water," said Cullen. "Since we knew we'd be spending two weeks at a time anchored in-port, the decision was made to install that reverse osmosis machine on the main deck."
Cargo and equipment storage was another major concern. The medical and engineering teams brought with them a great deal of gear and had specific needs. It was the deck department and officers in charge of cargo who found a way to meet their needs.
"We had to organize, consolidate some of our stuff, plan out our holds and find room for four Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) for ship-to-shore movement," said 2nd Mate Andrew Strosahl, the ship's assistant cargo mate.
"We had to know what we had for cargo handling gear and anticipate what kind of cargo we were going to see, and make sure that medical had access to all their stuff."
In every port and every country there was always one thing at the forefront of everyone's minds upon arrival - getting all their gear ashore. Because the Richard E. Byrd cannot steam into shallow water, the ship worked directly with Australian landing craft and various other vessels to move equipment ashore.
"It was a unique challenge to bring so many different sized vessels alongside and move cargo off to them," said Strosahl. "And it seems like every place we go there's not just one place we deliver cargo, there's multiple destinations we need to account and plan for. We just have to have it organized in such a manner that we can put it off easily and without mass confusion."
Logistically, ship-to-shore transportation of mission personnel and ship's crew was one of the most vital necessities throughout the deployment and abundant with daily challenges. In addition to providing a flight quarters fire party, vertical replenishment teams and cargo handlers, Richard E. Byrd's deck department provided this critical transportation service.
"It was difficult to prepare because we didn't know what we'd be facing," said Dave Floyd, ship's boatswain. "As issues came at us, we came up with a plan, and as the plan changed we adapted to that."
By operating four seven-meter RHIBs, acquired during an underway replenishment with USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE 6) at the start of the mission, and by training new coxswains, medical and engineering personnel were able to make it to and from the ship daily.
"We start boat ops in the mornings at 0600. When we get the crews up, we feed them breakfast and start preparing for the day's boat operations by fueling, doing the engineering checks, making sure the boats are equipped with lifejackets, water for the crew, and that they have functioning radios and GPSs," said Floyd. "We've been almost 100 percent successful at having two boats in the water by 0700 in the morning for the first group of mission personnel leaving the ship, and with few exceptions we've managed to keep at least two boats in the water all day for at least 18 hours a day."
With two crews operating two RHIBs all day, every day, it's been everything the deck machinists could do to keep up with repairs and keep them running throughout the mission. The team managed to prevent loss of time due to unnecessary maintenance by rotating the boats.
"It's been a monumental task to keep them up and running," said Floyd. "The boats came to us with at least 10 years of use. They were all in good shape, but the amount of use that we've put on them has taken its toll. It's been a big task for the deck machinists to keeping them running. They've done a real good job. I think having the RHIBs gave the mission commander a lot more flexibility in scheduling."
"Normally a recreational boat on average runs about 100 engine hours per year," added Cullen. "And we've been putting that much on these four RHIBS per in-port."
Along with all the logistical support, the CIVMARs actively worked side-by-side with U.S. military members, partner nation personnel, and other volunteers. They also regularly volunteered to be a part of ongoing community relations projects held throughout the mission at various sites including schools, churches and other public areas.
"I liked having the mission personnel on board because I get a chance to meet more medical people, otherwise I'm the only medical guy on board," said the ship's civil service Medical Services Officer Josefino D. Cajulis Jr.
"Capt. [Robert] Carrillo has been a great help. I've learned a lot from them. He's been using my medical space because it's clean and most of the instruments he needs are here. Cmdr. [Jeffrey] Bitterman and I worked together on a few things initially as well. We all communicate. We all help each other out."
Pacific Partnership 2009, with the Richard E. Byrd as the mission's life support, is nearing completion of its mission in Oceania, having traveled to Samoa, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kiribati and the Republic of Marshall Islands.
"I think we've verified that this ship can perform this type of mission, which demonstrates how MSC is really one of the most flexible arms that the Navy has," added Olmstead. "Give us a job to do and we'll figure out how to get it done, that's what we're here for, our mission is to support the Navy in whatever they need us to do."
For more news from Pacific Fleet, visit www.navy.mil/local/cpf/.