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USS Whidbey Island

“I cannot believe I am actually here on Whidbey Island,” said Cmdr. Erik M. Ross. “You get up and look out the window at Mt. Baker. What a great place to live!”

The captain of USS Whidbey Island, the dock landing ship commissioned 22 years ago, caught up with one of the sponsors, Sally Gorton, in Seattle recently, and on Tuesday, April 3, was warmly welcomed to a Navy League luncheon held in his honor. Some of those who attended the ship’s commissioning, such as Wallie Funk and Helen Chatfield-Weeks, were also there.

The charismatic Navy officer listed the requisite statistics and spoke of the ship’s capabilities. “About 800 folks live and work on this rolling city that displaces 16,000 tons,” he said. “It is 609 feet long, about two football fields in length. It has a 440-foot well deck for hovercrafts and two helicopter spots on deck.”

It was the ship’s response to humanitarian emergencies, however, that most interested guests.

“Last year, U.S. ships evacuated about 14,000 Americans from Lebanon,” Ross said. “We evacuated over 800 people from Beirut. They cried when they came on board at the sight of the American flag.

“It was odd to see one of my marines carrying a baby or comforting the elderly. Most of the evacuees were below age 7 or 8 and above age 65. Those were the best 24 hours in my Navy service –- the most rewarding.

“Jordan is one of the few countries willing to help us train over there. Marines went ashore and were training Jordanians when the crisis occurred.”

They pulled into Cyprus at 3 a.m., got everyone off and turned around to repeat the process.

Ross said they held a three-week exercise with Pakistan in their theater of operation and engagement before heading to Kuwait to await orders and training. They went to the oil wells, not far from where the 15 British sailors were taken hostage, and trained Iraqi mariners.

“Twelve million dollars a minute flows through those pipes,” Ross said. The stakes are too high to leave their fate to chance.

The Medical Department took care of quite a few fishing injuries. Ross said that although they could be taking a chance by letting Iraqi fishermen come aboard, they were obligated at sea to provide help.

Ross said R&R in Dubai, the world’s fastest growing city, was beyond description. “They even have ski slopes in shopping malls. Some of my sailors tried them out.”

On their way back, they spent four days in Italy followed by four days in Tunis where a number of dignitaries came aboard. Whidbey Island sailors and officers were thrilled to see and hear the Pope in Rome last Nov. 15.

Ross spoke of their last deployment as a good example of why people join the Navy: training, education and travel.

The ship is in the yards now being repaired and is due out next month. Then it will go through test, evaluation and exercises to prepare it for the coming September cruise.

Looking ahead, Ross summed up, “Dock landing ships are built for 25 years of service, but we need them to last 40. It will spend eight months in the yards undergoing a $4.5 million mid-life program after the next cruise.”

USS Whidbey Island deploys with the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) Strike Group. “We have almost more capability in the strike group than the average carrier air wing,” Ross said, but with different deployment objectives.

“We need the Navy League’s help to preserve funding to continue for the life of the ship,” he said.

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