Sunday, December 14, 2003

Navy vessel visits
her isle roots

The Pililaau is named after
a Korean War hero from Waianae

One of the Navy's newest cargo vessels had a homecoming of sorts last month when it pulled into Pearl Harbor after traveling more than 100,000 miles since it was placed in service a year ago.

"We didn't expect the ship to come to Hawaii," said Bobby Paaluhi, who joined other relatives for a lunch and a tour of the 950-foot roll-on/roll-off ship named after his late brother, Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. Herbert Kaili Pililaau. Relatives were allowed to drive their cars from Ford Island onto the massive ship.

Paaluhi, 65, was in New Orleans in January 2000 when USNS Pililaau was christened. Navy officials told the family at the time that they didn't know if the Pililaau would ever visit the islands.

"I am really lucky to see the ship," said Paaluhi, who was adopted by the Waianae family and became the youngest of nine brothers and five sisters.

Pililaau, a member of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division, was killed in the Korean War on Sept. 17, 1951, while covering the withdrawal of his unit on "Heartbreak Ridge" near Pi-ri. He is credited with killing 40 North Koreans before he died.

Abigail Chase, the Pililaau family historian who spoke at the New Orleans ceremony, presented a Hawaiian flag to the captain of the Pililaau and told the crowd that Pililaau means "to stick together" in Hawaiian.

Philip Blaha, Pililaau's chief engineer, said that with 380,000 square feet of cargo space, the vessel can carry up to 70,000 tons, including 50 to 60 M1A2 Abrams tanks, 40 armored personnel carriers, 900 other support vehicles like trucks and Humvees, and cranes.

In civilian terms, the Navy estimates that the Pililaau, with its seven decks of cargo space, can transport 3,600 mid-size cars. Capable of carrying an entire U.S. Army armor or assault battalion, the Pililaau has both a stern ramp and removable side ramps to make it easy to drive vehicles on and off the ship.

Although the Pililaau was placed into active service last December to move U.S. military equipment and supplies to Kuwait, it has never stopped at Pearl Harbor during its last four Pacific trips.

It is in the islands to load 20 Kiowa Warrior helicopters; 20 Humvees; 1,000 trucks, trailers and other support vehicles; and 300 containers holding other equipment belonging to the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, which will replace the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq in February. It will pull out of Pearl Harbor with its combat cargo on Dec. 19.

Last March 19 when war broke out in Iraq, the Pililaau with its civilian merchant marine crew of 30 was berthed in Port Shuaybah, Kuwait. Third Officer Evan Barbis recalled that the ship got its first of six SCUD missile alerts at 11 a.m.

"We all donned our gas masks and full chemical protection suits and went into the deepest part of the ship," Barbis said. "We had to do that six times. The longest was for more than two hours, waiting for the all-clear to be sounded each time by radio from the Navy."

Capt. Frank Reed, the master or captain of the Pililaau, said the vessel is one of 19 belonging to the Navy's Military Sealift Command but is crewed by civilians working for Patriot Contract Services, a division of American Ship Management of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Newport News, Va.

The Pililaau is normally berthed in Violet, La., and is one of seven in the Bob Hope class of cargo ships.

The Pililaau earlier this year participated in the military's "steel bridge of democracy" that provided of lifeline of equipment and supplies to the Persian Gulf, Reed said. Of the 214 cargo ships in the Navy's fleet, 78 percent were moving equipment and ammunition for the Iraqi war.

"Every two days," Reed said, "the ships would pass each other ... one went by empty to get another load."


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