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Marines depart aboard new amphib to sail around South America

Jul. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marines departed Friday aboard amphibious assault ship America.
Marines departed Friday aboard amphibious assault ship America. (Navy)
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Marines departed Friday aboard amphibious assault ship America. (Navy)

Hundreds of Marines set sail when the Navy’s newest amphibious assault ship departed from the shipyard in Mississippi on Friday, their historic transit taking them around South America to the ship’s home port in the Pacific.

About 280 Marines and four MV-22B Osprey aircraft are aboard the Navy’s amphibious assault ship America, scheduled for commission in October in San Francisco, and for homeport in San Diego. The ship’s Marines formed the new Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Southern Command in recent months and spent much of June training together. They joined more than 1,000 sailors aboard for the two-month transit.

The ship will make several port calls along the way where the Marines will engage with local military partners, said Lt. Col. George Hasseltine, the commander of SPMAGTF-South. Stops will include Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a Navy news release.

“A lot of Marines haven’t had much of a chance to be on ships lately, and I think even fewer have had a chance to be in South America,” Hasseltine said. “From both the sailors’ and Marines’ standpoint, there are few people who ever go around the cape of the south end of the continent.”

On this transit, the Marines will get to say they’ve sailed through the Straight of Magellan, Hasseltine said. And since they’re crossing the equator, there will likely be many Marines and sailors participating in a traditional “shellback” ceremony. That means the Marines aboard will get the bragging rights of going from being a “pollywog,” or someone who hasn’t crossed the equator, to shellback status, a reference to the shell on old sea turtles.

Since the America is a brand-new ship type, Hasseltine said they’ll be working with the ship’s crew to figure out how to best use Marines aboard. The America is a landing helicopter assault ship, built to increase the aviation capacity of future big deck amphibs. The series replaces the outdated Tarawa-class ship, and they’re optimized for Ospreys and the soon-to-be-fielded F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

“Without the well-deck, it presents some unique opportunities and challenges,” Hasseltine said. “The best part about it is that we’re really able to sit here and work closely with the Navy to figure out the capabilities.”

Major elements making up the command, ground combat and logistics combat elements of SPMAGTF-South include: 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and Combat Logistics Battalion 13, all based at Camp Pendleton, California. SPMAGTF-South’s air combat element — including the four Ospreys — are from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 22, based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.

The Americas transit is a chance for Marines to get back to smaller scale, sea-based operations the Corps carried out prior to long-term combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hasseltine said.

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