In this file photo, amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) departs Sasebo, Japan, April 29 following a successful hull swap between the crews of Essex and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joe Kaned)

SAN DIEGO - USS Essex (LHD 2) returns to San Diego May 17 after completing 12 years as the Navy's only permanently forward-deployed amphibious assault ship in Sasebo, Japan. The crew of USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) took over Essex April 23.

"Essex departed San Diego in 2000 to serve as a forward deployed asset to 7th Fleet," said Capt. Chuck Litchfield, commanding officer of Essex. "I know there are a lot of former crew members and fans of the ship still in the area, so it is going to be a real pleasure to re-introduce 'The Iron Gator' to San Diego."

Essex was the second ship to serve as part of the Forward Deployed Naval Forces having taken over those duties from USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3).

"John Paul Jones, the captain of the original Bonhomme Richard, said, 'Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.'" said Litchfield, "In the last two years, I have been humbled to witness that truth in my crew. It wasn't easy to turnover a ship we had poured so much blood, sweat, toil and tears into; however, the crew never looked back, they took immediate ownership of Essex. We have spent the last 18 days in transit across the Pacific defining for ourselves what it means to be Essex."

Essex is scheduled to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in and around the Hawaiian Islands this summer, and will undergo an extensive maintenance availability period at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego after its return.

Essex will be assigned to Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 3 within U.S. Third Fleet and homeported in San Diego. Third Fleet leads naval forces in the Eastern Pacific from the West Coast of North America to the International Date Line.