By Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist (SW/AW) Donnie W. Ryan
The distinctive silhouette of an amphibious assault ship on the horizon can strike fear into the heart of the enemy or renew hope for people in need during a humanitarian crisis. For 34 years, the mighty amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5) filled both roles, serving as both a weapon of war and a symbol of peace.
But the sounds of “reveille, reveille” and “commence ship’s work” will probably never be heard through the now empty passageways of the deserted vessel. In an almost eerie quietness throughout the ship, the only thing left inside the bulkheads are memories of the Sailors and Marines who proudly served aboard the Iron Nickel.
Tomorrow hundreds of plankowners, former crew members, and a few Marines will join the ship’s crew at Naval Base San Diego to say goodbye to one of the most famous ships in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The flag will be hauled down, the watch secured, and the crew ceremoniously disembarked for the final time.
During her almost 35 years of service, Peleliu was homeported on the California coast in both Long Beach and San Diego, as thousands of Sailors and Marines called the ship home. Capable of launching a coordinated air and sea attack from one platform, Peleliu has conducted 17 deployments, 178,051 flight operations, served 57,983 personnel, and steamed approximately 1,011,946 nautical miles since being commissioned May 3, 1980 in Pascagoula, Miss.
The ship’s maiden deployment took place in 1982, with follow-on deployments almost every two years thereafter. While on a Western Pacific deployment in 1990, the crew rescued 155 refugees from Vietnam who were crammed into a small boat. The story of how the gray silhouette of the mighty Peleliu appeared on the horizon to rescue the group just in time lives on in the hearts of a group of grateful individuals.
Phuong Minh T. Nguyen, who was a young child in the boat, remembers the story and has made it her job to make sure no one ever forgets how the crew rescued the refugees and took them to safety.
“On the seventh day we saw black dots on the horizon, and the dots kept getting bigger,” said Nguyen. “They were big American Navy ships and they were coming to rescue us. We love the Sailors of USS Peleliu because they rescued us.”
Peleliu took on another humanitarian mission during the summer of 2007 as the platform for Pacific Partnership. Throughout the four-month deployment, Peleliu hosted both military and civilian personnel who provided medical and dental care, as well as education and preventative medicine to more than 31,600 people in the Philippines, Vietnam, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Following the Pacific Partnership deployment, Peleliu deployed in 2008 to support maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th and 7th Fleet areas of operations. Three months into the deployment, the ship made headline news when it responded to a distress call from the M/V Gem of Kilakarai off the coast of Somalia, reporting that it was under attack from armed pirates.
Rear Adm. Marcus A. Hitchcock, who commanded Peleliu during the 2008 deployment, said he remembers the attack on the civilian merchant ship and how Peleliu’s Sailors and Marines sprang into action in order to help prevent the pirates from taking control of the vessel.
“We were conducting routine operations that morning and then suddenly there was a commercial container vessel putting out a mayday call,” said Hitchcock. “The ship was electrified and we launched three helicopters within minutes.”
A show of force from the Navy and Marine Corps helicopters and the sight of the mighty Peleliu’s silhouette on the horizon must have struck fear into the pirates as they quickly fled the scene.
The Gem of Kilakarai did report one grenade landed on the ship’s bridge wing during the attack but failed to detonate. Explosive ordnance personnel from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were dispatched to defuse the unexploded grenade.
“The ship was doing a good job at evasive maneuvers but the pirates were determined to take the ship,” said Hitchcock. “Our actions absolutely prevented that act of piracy from taking place.”
On a personal note, Hitchcock said he remembers how much fun it was to set up a swim call for Peleliu Sailors and Marines in the Red Sea and make a port visit to Aqaba, Jordan during the 2008 deployment. Force protection conditions didn’t allow for a lot of liberty in the port, but the ship’s supply department worked with local merchants to create a tent city on the beach to entertain the crew during the port visit.
During that deployment, the officers and crew also made an impressive effort to earn surface warfare officer, enlisted surface warfare, and enlisted air warfare pins during the deployment. As a result, the ship was flying all three pennants as it returned home to Naval Base San Diego on Nov. 4, 2008, with hundreds of friends and family onboard for a Tiger Cruise.
“I was always very impressed with the crew’s ability to achieve the mission,” said Hitchcock while thinking back on his 18-month tour as commanding officer. “When I think of the Iron Nickel I think about the true grit of the crew. My time onboard was filled with a lot of great memories.”
The 2008 deployment was not the last for the mighty Peleliu as it deployed again in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Even with new Sailors and Marines joining the team each time, the ship developed a reputation of doing whatever it took to safely accomplish the mission. From delivering relief supplies to Pakistan during massive flooding, to landing Marines on the beach, the blue/green team exceled during every mission.
After the decommissioning process is complete, Peleliu will be towed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor to join the Navy’s reserve fleet. There, the gray silhouette of the last of its class amphibious assault ship will take its place alongside its sister ship and first in class, the ex-USS Tarawa (LHA 1).
“Pax per Potens” and the stories of the mighty Peleliu will live on in the hearts and minds of the former crew members for many more years to come.