The Navy’s newest expeditionary sea base, the USS Miguel Keith, was commissioned Saturday in Coronado, California.
Although expeditionary sea bases originally served as United States Naval Ships under Military Sealift Command, the Navy changed its policy and approved the commissioning of all ESBs. Doing so provides the ships with more mission flexibility while adhering to international law, the Navy said.
Some USNS ESBs did carry a small military complement to carry out communication and special mission functions, or for force protection.
“Converting ESBs to a commissioned warship (USS) allow them the flexibility needed to meet challenges in the regions in which they operate,” Navy spokesman Lt. Rob Reinheimer said in a statement to Navy Times. “A warship must conduct potential missions, such as mine-countermeasure operations and special operations forces staging, under the law of armed conflict. In order to provide combatant commanders the maximum amount of flexibility, the Navy made the decision to commission ESB-5 as a U.S. warship.”
Despite the change, crew composition has remained the same, with approximately 100 military officers and crew, and 44 Military Sealift civil service mariners, Reinheimer said.
The ship is named after Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Vietnam War.
“This ship is named after an inspiring leader — a Marine,” Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said in his remarks during the commissioning ceremony at Naval Air Station North Island.
Keith, a machine gunner with Combined Action Platoon 1-3-2, was “seriously wounded” during a morning ground attack from a much larger enemy force on May 8, 1970, in Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
Although injured, Keith ran across “fire-swept terrain to check the security of vital defense positions and then, while completely exposed to view, proceeded to deliver a hail of devastating machine gun fire against the enemy.”
He then fired against five enemy soldiers making their way toward the command post as he advanced toward them. He successfully killed three of the enemy soldiers, and the two others dispersed, the citation said.
At this point, a grenade detonated near Keith, knocking him to the ground and inflicting further severe wounds.
“Fighting pain and weakness from loss of blood, he again braved the concentrated hostile fire to charge an estimated 25 enemy soldiers who were massing to attack,” the citation reads. “The vigor of his assault and his well-placed fire eliminated four of the enemy soldiers while the remainder fled for cover.”
During this valiant effort, he was fatally wounded by an enemy soldier, but his actions “contributed in large measure to the success of his platoon in routing a numerically superior enemy force,” according to his citation.
It is one of four expeditionary sea base class ships to be named for a Marine, so far.
“But can any of us truly imagine?” Faller said during the ceremony. “Close your eyes for a minute and try to think. The sound of gunfire like the worst violent storm any of us have ever been through. The searing heat, suffocating humidity, the chaos and confusion of battle. The smell of death and destruction.”
“When many would have stepped back, Miguel stepped up,” Faller said. “He led the charge courageously focused on his team above all else, and he made a difference. A difference that is continued today.”
The small commissioning ceremony for the expeditionary sea base included 50 guests, in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines. Among those in attendance was Eliadora Delores Keith, the lance corporal’s mother, and Jesse Mendez, his brother, the Navy said.
“This is by far the greatest honor for myself and my entire family,” Mendez said, according to a Navy news release. “I want to thank everyone so much on behalf of my family for dedicating this ship in my brother’s name, recognizing him as a war hero and who saved lives for the United States of America.”