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‘Old Ironsides’ deploy aboard fleet of cargo ships

NAPLES, Italy (USTCNS) --- Less than a few weeks after the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime by U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, cargo vessels from the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, or MSC, continue to re-supply our forces in the region.

Recently, what might best be described as an “armada” of nine MSC cargo ships—loaded an entire U.S. Army division’s equipment heading for duty in Iraq

The U.S. Army’s First Armored Division, more commonly known in Army circles as “Old Ironsides,” received orders to deploy to the Gulf on March 4. Next came the order to MSC, U.S. Transportation Command’s component for sealift, to move the cargo to the Gulf. A number of government-owned and contracted cargo vessels were picked for the job.

Serving in the first Gulf war in 1991, as well as in both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, ‘Old Ironsides’ consists of 13,000 troops based in Weisbaden, Germany, as well as additional 3,500 troops from Ft. Riley, Kansas.

The load of more than 6,000 pieces of heavy combat equipment and supplies took place at the northern European ports of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and nearby Antwerp, Belgium, in mid-April. At both ports, row after row of M1-A1 main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, fuel trucks, ambulances, humvees, bridge layers, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, not to mention hundreds of shipping containers, sat in huge staging areas—the size of several football fields—waiting to be loaded.

“The equipment was sent to Antwerp and Rotterdam ports from Germany by both rail and barge,” said MSC Northern Europe’s commanding officer, Lt.Cmdr. Gwynn Griffin, USN, based in suburban Rotterdam. MSC established teams at the ports, manned by MSCO Northern Europe operations officer Paul Weitenberg, and naval reservists mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Along with MSC were elements from the Army’s 21st Theater Support Command, or TSC, based in Kaiserslauten, Germany, and Military Traffic Management Command’s, or MTMC’s, 598th Transportation Terminal Group, also located in Rotterdam. To support hundreds of personnel assigned to the port, the 21st TSC established mobile office facilities and other support structures, while MTMC managed port operations and loaded the ship.

Just before midnight on April 14, the operation began with the arrival of large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship, or LMSR, USNS Watkins—a 63,000-ton cargo ship about the size of an aircraft carrier—at Rotterdam’s pier 8200, just before the breakwaters of the North Sea.

Watkins, under the command of ship’s master Capt. David J. Smith, loaded more than 1,400 pieces of cargo, wrapping up operations on April 17, and setting sail the following day. “Her mission wasn’t over, however, as she made the 12-hour transit to neighboring Antwerp,” Weitenberg said. Manning the ‘night watch’ at Rotterdam was mobilized reservist, BM2 Aaron Jackson, USNR.

MSC personnel at the port bring expertise in maritime cargo operations, as well as serve as the liaison between the Army and the ship’s master. “Paul’s [Weitenberg] the ‘go-to’ guy for us for any issues with the ship,” said Lisette Weteling, a civilian marine cargo superintendent with the 598th Transportation Terminal Group. “For example, if we are unsure whether some of the larger vehicles have enough space to make a turn in the cargo holds —we rely on his expertise.”

Next came MV Catherine, a Luxembourg-flagged, roll-on/roll-off contracted vessel, which loaded 428 pieces of cargo, April 17-18. “Working with the masters was a very interesting part of the job,” said Cmdr. Marion Fedorshak, USNR, MSCO Northern Europe’s senior operations officer in Antwerp, referring more to their diverse nationalities, which included Korean, Swedish, Russian, Italian, and, of course, U.S. The 20-year Naval reservist and Philadelphia-native completed a prior tour of duty with MSC in the Gulf War in 1991.

The Panama-flagged contracted commercial car-carrier MV Asian Vision was next to arrive in Antwerp as the ship pulled pierside just after 5 p.m. on April 17. Asian Vision loaded over 900 pieces of cargo, including 279 containers and 42 helicopters, according to Fedorshak. Alongside Fedorshak, was operations officer Lt. Matthew Scarlett, USN.

“The cooperation with Army was superb in every way—everything was on time, the load was smooth, there were no roadblocks with the commercial stevedores, and the use of storage space was very well done with some vehicles just inches apart,” said Fedorshak speaking about the load of Asian Vision. “Overall, all the masters were easy to work with,” Fedorshak added.

Another giant LMSR arrived in Rotterdam in the early hours of April 18. USNS Mendonca loaded a total of 1,500 pieces of cargo, including rolling stock and containers. According to ship’s master Capt. Doug Harrington, Mendonca was on her way to the U.S. when the call came to divert to Rotterdam. “This would be the ship’s third voyage to Kuwait since the ready reserve force ship was activated in January,” Harrington said.

Completing the short transit west to Belgium, Watkins arrived in Antwerp just after 8 p.m. on April 18, loading 21 helicopters, including Blackhawk, Apache, Kiowa Warrior, and even two massive Chinook twin-rotor helicopters. All helicopters were flown to the staging site on the pier where rotors were removed, and each “shrink-wrapped” in a plastic shell, ready for the long journey to the Arabian Gulf.

“Loading helicopters is a delicate process, you have to be extremely careful,” said MSC Antwerp’s SK2 Mark Stappenbeck, USNR, who worked the night shift during the ‘24-7’ operation. Over just six hours, most helicopters were carefully rolled up the ship’s stern ramp, but the Chinooks were too large and had to be lowered in the cargo hold by crane. “The Chinook’s were challenging since part of the shrink-wrapping had to be removed in order to attach the crane line,” said Stappenbeck. Manning the overnight shift with Steppenback was BM1 Kenneth Jones, USNR.

The Italian ship MV Jolly Turchese was next to arrive at Antwerp on the evening of April 19. The ship loading 544 pieces of cargo, including 163 shipping containers.

MV Skodsborg arrived in Rotterdam at 3 a.m. on April 21, loading over 175,000 sq.ft. of cargo. According to Weitenberg, this was one of the more challenging loads at the port. “Skodsberg has a straight stern ramp which is unable to swing,” Weitenberg said. “It is not possible at Rotterdam’s port to ‘med-moore’—a phrase used in the shipping industry to describe a ship that literally backs to the pier so the stern ramp can be extended straight out—because the pier strength is not sufficient. So, we had to use a floating pontoon, which was secured to the ship’s stern. Then, the ramp was lowered onto the pontoon. Overall, this is quite unusual for any port”

Port cranes were used to carefully lift armored personnel carriers, ammunition carriers, bridge layers, and howitzers from the pier onto the floating pontoon. From there, port stevedores simply drove the wheeled and tracked vehicles up the stern ramp into the cargo holds. Up to three commercial barges pulled alongside the pontoon where more cargo was craned aboard. A forward crane was used simultaneously to load cargo containers and other rolling cargo onto the ships main deck. Shipboard cranes easily handled the 54-ton howitzers. “But, this is very unusual for us to carry military cargo,” said Skodsborg’s Polish master Capt. Marek Juszkiewcz, who’s Caymen Island-flagged ship routinely carries commercial rolling stock and breakbulk cargo. Up to three commercial barges pulled alongside the pontoon to unload additional cargo.

British-flagged MV Thebeland arrived in Antwerp in the early hours of April 22. The ship loaded 517 pieces of cargo, including 121 containers, setting sail April 24, just after 7 p.m. The ship used a giant central cargo elevator to move cargo to the lower decks. Thebeland’s Swedish master Capt. Karl Goran Inberg said his ship carried military cargo before—in support of peacekeeping operations in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and delivered military equipment for a major British military exercise in Jordan—but this would be his first trip to the Arabian Gulf. According to Inberg, Thebeland is more used to carrying paper and timber from Finland to ports in the Mediterranean, than U.S. Army humvees or armored personnel carriers.

Like Mendonca, USNS Gilliland’s master Capt. Edwin L. Sherrill, III, said his ship was on her way to the U.S. from the Gulf, when she was diverted to Rotterdam. The ship arrived next at Rotterdam early on April 23. Shortly after arrival, the ship’s giant stern ramp was lowered to the pier and cargo began to roll on. Barges pulled alongside to transfer cargo to the ship and forward cranes were used to lower rolling stock and containers onto the ship’s main deck. The ship loaded more than a thousand pieces of equipment of rolling stock and containers, getting underway early on April 26. “The crew has spent 45 days at sea since January,” said Sherrill, a 1976 Kings Point graduate, who has served as ship’s master since December of 2000. “Generally, everyone’s holding up well … they accept a lot of uncertainly but they move on.”

MV Cape Diamond was the final ship in the ‘armada,’ loading the last 623 pieces of cargo at Rotterdam, wrapping up operations on April 28. Troops from the First Armored Division will marry up with their equipment in Kuwait for onward deployment into Iraq.

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