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January 2007

Chapman sails with 'saints'
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By Gillian Brigham, SEALOGEUR Public Affairs


Halfway between Africa and South America lie the islands of St. Helena and Ascension, British overseas territories flung deep within the watery heart of the South Atlantic.

Slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C., with little more than 7,000 inhabitants between them, St. Helena and Ascension went undiscovered and uninhabited until Portuguese explorers stumbled upon them in 1502. After moonlighting as Napoleon's exiled retreat from 1815 until his death six years later and serving as a British military staging base during the short-lived Falklands War of 1982, the islands have otherwise maintained a low profile as a small stopping point for transatlantic travelers.

One regular band of wayfarers calling on these two islands is the crew of Military Sealift Command's Maritime Prepositioning Squadron One ship MV Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman. For Chapman's crew, St. Helena and Ascension are more than just prominent geographical points on their journeys through the European theater. The islands are a second place to call home.

As a prepositioning ship permanently forward deployed to the European theater, staging military cargo at sea, Chapman travels from port to port, keeping its supplies readily available to U.S. forces in Europe should a crisis require their use. However, unlike its fellow MPS Squadron One ships that travel to a host of European ports, Chapman's options are more limited. Because the ship is carrying primarily highly explosive U.S. Air Force munitions, it sails outside of the Mediterranean between more remote ports in the Eastern and Southern Atlantic.

The inhabitants of Ascension and St. Helena seem glad to have the company.

During Chapman's last visit to St. Helena in October, the crew and local islanders took full advantage of the few weeks they had to spend time together. The ship hosted St. Helena's governor Michael Clancy and others for an American-style barbeque and let a troop of local Boy and Girl Scouts spend a day experiencing life aboard ship - an event that garnered a full page of attention in the local paper the next day.

MV Tech Sgt. John A. Chapman
Military Sealift Command container ship MV Tech Sgt. John A. Chapman sits pierside. Chapman, an Air Force munitions prepositioning ship regularly spends its time in the area around Ascension Island and St. Helena in the Southern Atlantic. U.S. Navy photo

Ashore, two U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets spending a semester at sea with Chapman and one of the ship's able seamen took turns hosting a local radio show. The cadets also visited a school and answered students' questions about life at sea.

"The 'saints' on both islands have been very good to us," said Chapman's merchant marine master Capt. Joe Sohlberg. Locals refer to themselves as saints. "Both islands are very social. [The residents] are very welcoming and enjoy having long conversations about just about anything."

According to Sohlberg, the ship has been calling on Ascension for about three years and St. Helena for two. With three week-long port calls, this has given Chapman's crew substantial time to become honorary 'saints' themselves.

"Being down here is very comfortable," said Sohlberg. "The officers and crew are welcomed into the homes of the locals."

"The local governments have also been generous in their support of Chapman," noted Navy Cmdr. Hitch Peabody, Sealift Logistics Command Europe's Operations and Plans director. SEALOGEUR's Operations Department oversees Chapman's missions to the Eastern Atlantic and works with MPS Squadron One to schedule the squadron's movements and port calls throughout the theater.

Whale shark
A whale shark skims the ocean's surface off Chapman's bow. Whale sharks, as well as other sea creatures, are a common sight for the ship's crew. J. Sohlberg photo

"Chapman's mission requires remote sites, and we have been grateful for the hospitality extended by St. Helena and Ascension."

That hospitality extends both ways. The local governments occasionally rely on Chapman and her crew to help them shuttle mail, supplies and other packages between the two islands.

In September, the ship even delayed her departure from Ascension to bring St. Helena's new surgeon, Dr. John Sharpe, to his post. The surgeon flew into Ascension's British military airfield and hitched a ride aboard Chapman from Ascension to his new home in St. Helena. Without the ship's assistance, the island would have been without a surgeon for more than a month.

"The St. Helena government is extremely grateful to the captain and crew of MV Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman," said St. Helena officials in a public statement thanking the ship for its efforts.

For Sohlberg, the ship needs no thanks for such small gestures of solidarity.

"When you live and work in these extreme locations it is always nice to have friends that will lend a hand," he said.