With its own meteorological department, dentist and hospital, the massive warship USS America is its own floating metropolis with 5000 people on board. Here’s what it’s like inside. SEE PHOTOS AND VIDEO
“How embarrassing,” I thought.
“Welcome to Australia – it stinks.”
In a grandeur sight to behold, the uniformed men and women “manning the rails” had been standing mostly still as they looked out over the ocean for the better part of two hours in a foreign port entry custom steeped in US Navy tradition.
The only movement spotted was a slight wriggle of some noses when a repugnant pong from a nearby sewerage treatment plant hit the deck as three tug boats guided the USS America through a shallow ocean channel.
The odour cleared closer to the Fisherman’s Island Wharf, but other than a handful of port workers and emergency services personnel, no members of the public were able to witness the stupendousness of the 257m-long ship’s arrival, with those on board instead greeted by the sight of hundreds of shipping containers at a busy cargo terminal.
The excitement over getting some shore leave was palpable among the 2500 crew aboard the US Seventh Fleet’s largest amphibious assault ship on Tuesday, but there was an order in which people were allowed to disembark, as noted over the ship’s public announcement system.
First, medical emergencies. Second, all rubbish must be removed from the ship.
An ambulance was waiting on shore as the vessel moored, while sailors in turn readied to form a line between the ship and some large waste containers on land.
A few hours prior, US Navy Senior Chief Armando Leija, 47, and Lieutenant Commander Donald Trainer, 49, informed a media tour a crew member had required stitches earlier after bumping their head.
There were also two people on the hospital ward, though the naval officers would not say why for the privacy of their patients.
Dr Trainer, of Oskaloosa, Kansas, said the USS America, which had an Intensive Care Unit, was designed to receive causalities from other ships and perform surgeries when needed.
Its own floating city, the USS America has everything from a dentist to a meteorological department.
It also has a lot of stairs. Steep, ladder-like stairs, appropriately called ladders.
I used to go to the gym regularly but in recent years that stopped, so by the end of a long busy day aboard, my leg muscles were left stiff and sore, a harsh reminder as to how unfit I had now become.
No wonder the sailors and Marines aboard are in such good shape.
The America’s commanding officer, Captain William S. Snyder, (yes, he does get called Captain America and he’s OK with that) said he did not know how many steps were throughout the ship but expected it was thousands.
“The ship has 12 decks, six below the main deck and six above, but I cannot tell you how many stairs. Thousands,” he said.
“We get our steps in when we go around the ship.”
The internal part of the landing helicopter assault-class ship is made up of a maze of similar-looking corridors, all connected by hatch doors.
As our officer escorts take us to our next stop, I wondered how long it took newcomers to learn how to navigate their way around and how long some of them had been lost for while just trying to get to their bunk.
We climbed up or down stairs, stepped over and through several open hatches to get from one passageway to another and climbed more ladders.
Doors on the side of some of the passageways open to different types of rooms, such as offices, meeting rooms, bedrooms or bathrooms, known as the ‘head’.
One of the largest is a wardroom where food is served.
Enlisted (lower ranking) personnel have a separate mess hall on a different part of the ship.
It was ‘Taco Tuesday’ the day we visited.
Grabbing a tray, plates and cutlery, Marine and navy officers formed a queue in the food line.
Fruit, corn bread and other American food options are offered, before getting to the next section where tacos, quesadillas, fajitas and their common toppings are on offer.
Some packaged items and a drink machine are also nearby.
The wardroom is already full of Marines and sailors seated at long tables and chowing down as a bell tolls throughout the ship eight times to indicate it’s midday.
At the far end of the large room is a wall with coffee mugs hanging under the names of certain officers.
One sailor indulges in two glasses of milk.
“It’s good for your bones,” he says with a smile.
Everything is fairly structured, even the plates must be returned in a certain way as depicted by a photo on the wall in front of where dishes are being washed.
“The photo is needed for the Marines,” a navy officer quipped.
Based in Sasebo, Japan, the America is the lead ship of the Seventh Fleet’s Amphibious Ready Group and, with Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) embarked, has arrived in Brisbane for a port visit before heading off to participate in the biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023 with the Australian Defence Force.
Commissioned in 2014, it is the fourth ship to bear the America name and is designed primarily to support US Marine Corps aviation.
It hosts stealth multirole combat jets, F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, as well as a combination of rescue, combat and support helicopters including MV22 Ospreys, CH-53E Super Stallions, AH-1Z Super Cobra and MH-60 Sierras.
Captain Snyder said the ship had extended aviation maintenance capabilities as well as an increased capacity to hold aviation fuel.
“Our primary mission is to partner with a team like the 31st MEU to be able to support them primarily in their mission in air assault,” he said.
Up to 24 aircraft can fit on the ship’s two acre flight deck, where it is windy and noisy, so ear protection is a must.
There were eight MV-22 Ospreys, four CH-53E Super Stallions, three MH-60s and six F-35s, including some in the hangar bay below deck, on board on the day of our visit.
The wind from landing tiltrotor Ospreys, a combination of fixed wing aeroplane and helicopter, was forceful enough to almost bowl a person over if they were not careful.
Back inside and down more stairs Lt Durante Cousins shows us the ‘Oujia board’ – a small scaled template of the ship and its aircraft.
He solves jigsaw puzzles, he says, as he works out parking configurations for whichever type of aircraft is on board on any given day.
“We launch on here day in and day out,” Lt Cousins said.
He works in conjunction with flight control, where we soon head.
Upstairs – up at least four more flights of ladders in a row, we find Commander Joe Adams, 43, from Corinna, Maine and Lt Commander Mike Ballester, 33, from Long Island, New York in matching yellow shirts.
One is emblazoned with “Air Boss”, while the other says “Mini Boss.”
The matching colours on the same day is a coincidence, but happens quite regularly, we’re told.
Commander Adams says ‘Air boss’ is the “best title I’ve ever had.”
With their office overlooking the flight deck, Commander Adams says their job is mainly a visual one.
‘’We’re up here using our eyeballs and radios to talk to pilots, once they get within five miles (82km) to get into a certain pattern to recover at some of our various spots we have on the deck,’’ he said.
About 200 people comprise the air department, with the majority of those working on the flight deck, including the fuel stations, as well as those on the flight control deck below.
“We don’t have a radar up here, but downstairs many layers below, I know you can tell by the number of stairs you’ve climbed today, down there they have the radars and are controlling the aircraft if we can’t see them, so there’ll be a handout between them and us coming in, they’ll give them to us and we’ll co-ordinate where they’re going to land,’’ he said.
In the hangar bay, a small room full of smoke acts as a training spot for the ship firefighters, who are given a challenge to gear up in under two minutes.
They succeed in one minute and 32 seconds.
Armed with a weapon and patrolling the ship are Navy Aviation Ordnanceman third class Nathan Morris, 22, from Lincoln, Maine and Logistics Specialist Second Class Rebecca Walters, 28, from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Both were on ships off the coast of Australia during Talisman Sabre 2021, but no foreign navy personnel were permitted to disembark that year because of Queensland’s then-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.
LO2 Walters said morale was low on the America that year because of being stuck on board.
“Morale was kind of low but we made the best of it,’’ she said.
“It was a little frustrating cause Australia’s always been on my bucket list of places to go so just seeing it and not being able to step off the ship was kind of heartbreaking.
“I’m glad I extended to come out here to do this again. … I can’t wait to get out there.’’
Lt Commander Temi Jones, 44, was also assigned to the America during Talisman Sabre 2021.
“We joined the navy to see the world so there was a little bit of disappointment that year, as when you see water it could be anywhere in the world,’’ he said.
“So it would have been nice to go ashore to really get that intercultural experience but I think we made the best out of it.
“I found out we were able to do a lot of communications and focus on the missions and we still built some pretty good bonds with the people we worked with, particularly the HMAS Brisbane.”
Lt Jones said the America’s design meant it was also able to hold additional fuel, so it was able to service aircraft and refuel other ships.
Being a floating metropolis and capable of having up to 5000 people aboard, there’s every type of job available on board.
“It’s not just the warfare that we do, we run a city here,” Captain Snyder said.
“We have to make the water, we have to feed everyone, we have to give everyone shelter so really having the services that everyone uses everyday just to live is a big task and crew of the America do a great job.”