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thedrifter
12-15-05, 07:27 AM
A new way to get to war
Everyone wants to be first, and the USS San Antonio, built to transport Marines, will give 363 sailors their chance.
BY JIM HODGES
l 247-4633
December 15, 2005

NORFOLK -- Deena Abt surveyed her office, the cavernous cargo deck on the USS San Antonio, which was tied up at Pier 5 at the Norfolk naval base.

A bosun's mate, Abt supervises handling cargo, which is mostly the equipment Marines need to go to war. Nobody else has done her job on the San Antonio, which is why "plankowner" is in gold embroidered letters arced across the back of her dark-blue baseball cap.

It's the term for members of the original crew of a ship, and it's a designation a sailor covets.

"Not everyone gets to be one," Abt said Wednesday. "It's like building a new house from the ground."

In this case, it's like building a new neighborhood. The San Antonio is a Landing Platform Dock and the first of a class of troop carriers that was to be 12 ships, built for a combined $16 billion. Cost overruns ran the San Antonio's price from $850 million to $1.85 billion, and now the class will probably be nine ships.

Abt is on the first, as is Petty Officer Krys Cafferty, who spent much of Wednesday morning walking a guard post on the cold, wind-swept flight deck.

"I opted for this, because not only did I want to go to sea, I wanted to be part of something unique," said Cafferty, a computer specialist. "I wanted to see something built from the ground up on my first tour on a ship. I wanted to see what it took to build a ship, what it was like to be part of one."

What she has found is a new class of ship that incorporates such things as an enclosed mast to help elude radar; sailor-friendly berths they can actually sit up in; a reverse osmosis purification system that produces 72,000 gallons of potable water a day; and a 24-bed hospital.

What she has also found is a ship that has already ridden out two storms. One was natural, Hurricane Katrina, while the San Antonio was at Pascagoula, Miss. The other was man-made - an extensive list of structural and mechanical problems that were fixed after Navy inspectors deemed the ship unsafe.

Riding out Katrina quelled some doubts, and the ship has sailed without problem from the Gulf Coast to Norfolk. It sails back to Mississippi for commissioning in January, then completes outfitting with equipment to replace what was blown away from pier-side warehouses in the hurricane.

On Wednesday, there were no complaints, no problems.

"I've had four ships, and this is my first as a plankowner," said John Ingold, a Navy operations specialist. "Yes, it is a good deal, but we've had a few bumps. It's been a good experience overall."

The San Antonio carries a crew of 363 and is designed to deploy with 699 Marines and their equipment, including landing craft.

It's a rare ship, in that the Marines had a hand in designing it. "I was questioned in '94 about the LPD-17 (San Antonio)," said Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Regner. "I was asked what would I ... like to see on this ship."

His answer was reliability and - oh, by the way - some water for his soldiers and their equipment.

Regner answered more design queries in 1996 and 2001.

"What that meant to me was that this ship was built from the keel up with input from the Marines," Regner said. "Now I'm looking at some of the stuff in this ship that I was talking about in 1994."

It's been a long time coming. The San Antonio class replaces the Austin class of amphibious ship, which is more than 30 years old.

"I've been an expeditionary officer for the most part of my 22 years in the Navy, and this is the ship that we've been waiting for," said Capt. Jon Padfield of Salt Lake City, the San Antonio's first commanding officer.

He already has a new assignment ashore. Cmdr. Bradley Lee will take the ship for the rest of its trials and then on its first deployment, in 2007.

But Padfield will forever claim the commander's plank.

"Even though I'll be giving this ship to another officer, she'll still be mine," he said.

Others on the crew still don't know if they'll be around when the San Antonio goes to sea with a load of Marines, heading for a war.

They do know, though, that they are marked as special and will be so forever.

"When you go up before your chief's board, they look at it," Abt says. "It makes you look like you're willing to take new risks and challenges. Commissioning and decommissioning a ship are good things to do" for their record.

And when they leave, they'll do it with fanfare.

"When my time is done, I'll be rung off the ship because I'm a plankowner," Abt says. "When you commission and decommission a ship, you get two bells, and they say your name, 'plankowner, departing,' when you finally finish your tour aboard.

"It makes you feel special."

Ellie