Army’s ‘navy’ sails to Alaska to rescue Eskimo tribe

The 74-foot Army tugboats Desert Storm and Sag Harbor occupy pier spaces at Naval Base Ventura County adjacent to the Palo Alto.

The 74-foot Army tugboats Desert Storm and Sag Harbor occupy pier spaces at Naval Base Ventura County adjacent to the Palo Alto.

PORT HUENEME, Calif. – This sprawling Pacific coast U.S. Navy installation about 60 miles north of Los Angeles is the home of the fabled Seabees, the Navy Test Wing Pacific and a host of other Navy units including salvage and diving companies and a cargo handling battalion.

But when you navigate your way through Naval Base Ventura County past the Navy exchange and commissary, enlisted and officer housing, countless warehouses, machine shops and wharves, you enter U.S. Army territory.Tied up at a complex of piers is the Army’s “best kept secret,” a fleet of ocean-going vessels that are continuing the Army’s role in the nation’s maritime defense that began in 1775 when Gen. George Washington sent a fleet of Army ships to sea against the British in the Atlantic and on Lake Champlain well in advance of the creation of the Continental Navy.

Before you at the piers are three ships of the Army’s fleet ... the 174-foot Palo Alto and two 74-foot tugboats, the Desert Storm and Sag Harbor.

Other vessels in the Army’s floating inventory here, including the 174-footers Paulus Hook and Monterrey, are deployed on missions up and down the coast, said Col. Robert A. White, chief of staff of the Army Reserve’s 311th Expeditionary Support Command, the parent unit of the 481st Transportation Company which operates the Army’s ships at Port Hueneme.

The Palo Alto, like many in the Army fleet, is crewed by Army reservists, and its crew consists of 13 enlisted soldiers and three warrant officers: the “master” or ship’s captain, the first mate or executive officer, and the chief engineer. The warrant officers have private cabins, the enlisted crew sleep four to a room, and the amenities include a mess hall, TV lounge, large galley or kitchen and a small gym that occupies space in the engine room.

The ship’s master, Chief Warrant Officer Four Victor Vallero, said the Palo Alto is one of the Army’s 38 LCU or Landing Craft Utility ships that are homeported on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, in Japan and in the Middle East. The Army has approximately 200 other watercraft in its reserve and active fleets, ranging from yard craft to 314-foot LSVs or logistic support vessels. Many Army ships of all sizes and configurations have supported U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and have participated in humanitarian relief efforts in the Pacific and Caribbean.

The Palo Alto, like the other LCUs, is armed with two 50-caliber machine guns, M-163 anti-aircraft guns and shotguns.

But these weapons undoubtedly will not be needed during the Palo Alto’s next assignment: Another humanitarian relief expedition, this time set in Alaska.

On May 1, the Palo Alto sails for southwestern Alaska to help relocate 340 indigenous Yup’ik Eskimos from their tiny, isolated settlement at Newtok to a new village about nine miles away.

The Palo Alto’s massive cargo deck that can accommodate troops, assorted military cargo, trucks and other vehicles or five Abrams A-1 tanks, will be stocked with bulldozers, graders and building supplies when it departs for Alaska to participate in a joint-service assignment with the U.S. Marine Corps to transport the Eskimos and their possessions to the new town of Mertarvik where they will build temporary housing for the Eskimos and then construct a permanent community with houses, water and sewage systems, a school, community center and landing strip.

The Yup’ik Indians must be moved to Mertarvik because it is on higher ground than their current village which is built on permafrost, a permanently-frozen subsoil that is now melting because of a warming ocean and warming temperatures caused by global warming, according to White, who has visited Newtok and Mertarvik, which lie about 400 miles southwest of Anchorage.

“Newtok Village, located on the Ninglick River that flows into the Bering Sea, is below sea level and is sinking,” White continued.

Its shoreline is eroding and the village is in danger of sliding into the freezing waters. The warming temperatures are melting the surrounding coastal ice shelves which act as natural ice barriers against ocean storm surges, and scores of other Alaskan Eskimo villages also are at risk and may be abandoned as well.

The Eskimo rescue project, which is funded by the Alaskan and federal governments, calls for the Palo Alto, when it reaches Alaska, to land on the beach adjacent to Mertarvik and offload its bulldozers and building supplies. The crew, assisted by other reservists and a group of Marines, will begin construction of the temporary housing, will transport the Eskimos to the the site, and then will start building the permanent village. Because of its shallow draft, the Palo Alto will have no difficulty in positioning its bow on the beach, CWO Vallero said. The bow door then will be opened, it will lowered into the sand, and the cargo will be offloaded with ease, he said.

“This will be an historic Army mission, to be sure. The Palo Alto’s crew is well-trained, highly motivated and eager to set sail for Alaska,” he added.

White said the 481st Transportation Co. and other Army Reserve watercraft units are always seeking new members with or without prior military and seagoing service.

“Many Americans don’t realize that the Army has a long and distinguished seagoing heritage. Our mariners are trained at the Army’s Transportation School at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and serve aboard Army vessels all over the world,” he said.

Persons interested in joining a reserve or active duty Army maritime unit may contact their Army recruiter or White at (406) 260-2528 or (805) 732-4454.


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