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PHILIPPINE SEA - After completing the onload of the ground elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) got underway to embark aircraft with the MEU’s Aviation Combat Element (ACE) Sept. 27.
The fly on of the remaining aircraft from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 265 marks the final stage of the onload of the 31st MEU by Essex.
“It is great to have all the elements of the 31st MEU on board, including the ACE,” said Capt. David Fluker, Essex commanding officer. “The ACE brings capabilities that are essential to performing a wide variety of missions, including support for full spectrum combat operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. I look forward to working with them as we conduct our patrol in this region.”
Essex, together with the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42) and the amphibious transport dock USS Denver (LPD 9), will work with the MEU to conduct an amphibious certification exercise off the coast of Okinawa.
“This is the second fly-on for the ACE that I have been involved in,” said Capt. Gary Windt, an AV-8B Harrier pilot with the legendary “Black Sheep” of Marine Attack Squadron 211. “The air department on board Essex allowed us to do our jobs. Whether it’s refueling, moving aircraft on the flight deck or helping us move aircraft into the hangar bay, we are always working together to make sure everything is done right.”
The ACE brings an extensive arsenal of attack, medium and heavy lift helicopters including AH-1Z Super Cobras, UH-1N Hueys, CH-53E Sea Stallions and CH-46E Sea Knights, as well as AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft. As the U.S. Navy's only permanently forward deployed amphibious assault ship, Essex regularly works with the 31st MEU to conduct exercises and operations in the Western Pacific region. The ACE fly on allowed Sailors in Essex’ air department, like Aviation Boatswain's Mate Airman Michael Williams, to use their skills outside of a training environment.
"My job is very critical because I take down the fuel state, which is how the amount of fuel being used is measured, and how many souls are on board the aircraft in the air,” said Williams. “We have been working with the MEU every day, especially the Marine pilots. My job is a lot busier when the MEU is on board, because we are constantly taking stats and looking in the air to keep track of all the aircraft.” The 31st MEU is the only permanently forward-deployed MEU, maintaining a presence in the Pacific Ocean at all times as part of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, and is based out of Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan.
Essex is the lead ship of the only forward deployed Expeditionary Strike Group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy's forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.