Friday, December 10, 1999

10,000 Navy
forces here
for weekend

Sailors, Marines serving
on warships are on their way
home for the holidays

By Gregg K. Kakesako


Island merchants, restaurants, tour operators and Hawaii's economy in general got an early Christmas present from the Navy, with a flood of more than 10,000 sailors stopping here on their way home for the holidays.

Five thousand sailors and Marines belong to the USS Peleliu Readiness Group, and another 5,000 sailors and aviators are assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Constellation Battle Group.

All of the groups' half-dozen warships are home-ported in San Diego, while the Marines belong to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

Spending the weekend here will be the 820-foot Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu with its crew of nearly 900 sailors and 2,000 Marines; the 609-foot USS Rushmore, a dock landing ship, with a crew of more than 400 sailors and 500 Marines; and the 570-foot USS Ogden, an amphibious transport dock ship with a crew of 420 sailors and 900 Marines.

In addition, two Pearl Harbor-based cruisers -- the USS Lake Erie and USS Chosin -- will return to Pearl Harbor Dec. 17, meaning that all island-based warships will be home for the holidays.

And this afternoon, the aircraft carrier Constellation is expected to tie up at Pearl Harbor and spend the weekend here before setting sail for San Diego.

It's been two year since Petty Officer Rodney Abregano, 25, has had time to relax with friends and family in Waialua.

When the Peleliu left San Diego six months ago, Abregano sent his wife, Ruby, and his daughter, Abigail, to live with his parents.

Now, with 22 days of accumulated leave, Abregano -- a 1992 Waialua High School graduate -- wants to be home "to enjoy the fireworks, boogie-boarding on the North Shore and fishing at Haleiwa harbor."

"I missed my daughter's first birthday in November, but my wife sent me a videotape," the gas turbine electrician said.

Abregano was among the few sailors who were able to leave the Peleliu during its one-month layover off East Timor as part of the multinational force providing food and other supplies.

The Peleliu was diverted from its Persian Gulf assignment Oct. 14 to relieve the USS Belleau Wood by providing heavy-lift helicopter logistical support.

The Navy and the Marine Corps also moved tons of relief supplies and equipment from the staging area in Dili to coastal enclaves with its air-cushion landing crafts, known as LCACs, which Abregano maintains.

"It was a lot easier moving these supplies by LCACs," Abregano said, "than by using the clogged island roads."

Most of the 2,000 Marines assigned to the Peleliu -- which was anchored three miles off the beach -- never made it ashore.

But a few, like Lance Cpl. Nam Quach, a 1997 Roosevelt High School graduate, got to see limited shore duty.

Quach, 20, spent two weeks guarding the U.S. compound at Dili. "It was the smell more than anything else that got to you," said Quach, who has been in the Marine Corps for 2 years.

"There was always smoke every day," added aircraft handler Christopher Fleisher, 22, a 1995 Moanalua High School graduate.

"We heard a lot was caused by militia who set buildings in Dili on fire," he said.

Quach said he tried to prepare himself "for the worst" based on reports and photos he saw on the Internet of what local militias had been doing. "I expected more ... like a lot of hostilities," he said.

Helicopter flights operations began as early as 4 a.m. each day, Fleisher said, and didn't end until after 5 each night.

The Navy and the Marines carried out more than 30 missions, moving 1.5 million pounds of humanitarian assistance supplies and equipment with CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters.

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