By Bill Cook
SEALOGLANT Public Affairs
Shortly after the Tuesday, Jan. 12 earthquake struck Haiti, the United States began to mobilize massive humanitarian relief efforts.
"At this moment, we are moving forward with one of the largest relief efforts in our history," said President Barack Obama in his address to the nation. "We stand united with the people of Haiti."
Two of the nation's first responders to the crisis were Military Sealift Command's fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn and dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Sacagawea. Big Horn, tasked to supply fuel to keep U.S. Naval ships on station in the Port-au-Prince harbor, was directed to get underway on Jan. 13. Sacagawea, tasked to provide food, supplies and humanitarian assistance cargo to the same ships, was directed to get underway on Jan. 19.
"Both ships were available for the Haiti mission, and when an oiler was requested, Big Horn received the nod to get underway," said Navy Capt. Michael Graham, commander, Sealift Logistics Command Atlantic. "But it was apparent that other Navy responders in theater would need food and other supplies in addition to fuel, so we also offered Sacagawea."
SEALOGLANT had initial operational control of 21 MSC vessels involved in the relief efforts, said Graham. "We offered everything we had available; it was all push and no pull."
Big Horn's civil service crew hurried to get the ship underway from Naval Station Norfolk the day after the earthquake struck.
"I received a call from SEALOGLANT at 3 a.m. the morning of the 13th telling me that they were considering Big Horn for tasking to Haiti. An hour later, another phone call confirmed it," said the ship's civil service master Capt. Thomas Finger. "We left the pier at Naval Station Norfolk for refueling at Craney Island Fuel Terminal as soon as we could, and we got underway for Haiti by five that afternoon."
Big Horn's crew, which consists of 73 civil service mariners and a military department of four sailors, did "yeoman's work in getting the ship loaded and ready to sail," said Chief Petty Officer Josiah Hunter, the ship's military department officer in charge.
First combat logistics ship in theater
When Big Horn arrived in theater Jan. 17, the ship was the only combat logistics force ship in Haiti during its first 10 days in theater.
During the mission, Big Horn transferred 618 pallets of cargo and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief supplies, and a remarkable 2.6 million gallons of fuel, said George Gelner, the ship's supply officer.
"In my 31 years at sea, this mission has provided me one of the greatest feelings of personal satisfaction I've ever had. I daresay the crew members of this ship feel the same way themselves," Finger said.
The ship did nothing but transfer fuel during its first 10 days on scene, then sailed north to take on cargo in Mayport, Fla., where the crew worked around the clock to get the ship loaded and back to Haiti as quickly as possible, said Finger.
When Big Horn pulled in to Naval Station Mayport on Jan. 24 to refuel and load food, water and other supplies, Navy Rear Adm. Victor Guillory, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet, visited with the ship's crew.
"[Your efforts are] going to help mitigate the suffering of [hundreds of thousands] of people. You represent the critical link to make it all possible. We don't have a sea base without you. On behalf of thousands of people who won't get the chance, I want to thank you and wish you the best with your mission."
After nearly a month of high-tempo operations in support of Haiti relief efforts, Big Horn was relieved by MSC fleet replenishment oiler USNS Leroy Grumman in mid-February.
Sacagawea heads to crisis area
Sacagawea got underway from Norfolk Jan. 19. Many of Sacagawea's 124 civil service mariners and 11 sailors comprising the military department loaded the ship to capacity with pallets of disaster relief supplies, including nearly 400,000 meals ready to eat and an additional 235,000 pounds of food, seven truckloads of bottled water, 10 water-purification plants and medical supplies.
"We had a sense we would be called to duty as soon as we heard about the earthquake," recalled Sacagawea's civil service master Capt. George McCarthy. "Each day, the ship's crew tirelessly loaded the ship from first light to late into the night. We were still taking on cargo an hour before we sailed from Norfolk."
In all, Sacagawea's crew loaded 1,700 pallets of cargo, plus fuel, in Norfolk before getting underway.
"I was overwhelmed by the care and concern of the crew; they felt a sense of purpose and enthusiasm—their hearts were devoted to getting this job completed," said McCarthy. "MSC's motto is, ‘We Deliver.' Now Sacagawea has added the line, ‘We care, and we are coming.'"
Sacagawea arrived off the coast of Haiti Jan. 22, and its crew immediately commenced discharging relief cargo.
Sacagawea's versatile design provides a unique sea-based platform that can be tailored for a variety of missions, including disaster relief efforts, said McCarthy.
The ship's helicopter assets multiply the capability to transfer the relief cargo and supplies directly to their point of need. The ship's cargo capability in one shipload represents what would otherwise take 13 fully loaded C-17 aircraft to accomplish.
Sacagawea also played a role in the success of Big Horn's mission, according to the oiler's master.
"Big Horn has no helicopter assets," said Finger. "When Sacagawea arrived on scene, its helicopters made it possible to rapidly get our disaster relief cargo to the amphibious ships and then on to the beach. We couldn't have done it without the helicopters."
Navy Cmdr. Mark Pimpo, Sacagawea's military department officer in charge, documented the extraordinary accomplishments of the ship's crew members in delivering much needed cargo into the Haiti operating area.
"In a very dynamic environment, all 1,700 pallets of provisions and cargo were transferred to 13 ships in six days, which allowed them to remain on station to continue their humanitarian efforts," wrote Pimpo. "Three of the transfers occurred ‘skin to skin' with ships coming directly alongside Sacagawea while at anchor. We transferred critical medical supplies to Comfort upon arrival in Port-au-Prince harbor."
"We also transferred more than 40,000 gallons of water to amphibious assault ship USS Bataan when both of the ship's evaporators stopped functioning. Bataan was eventually able to get a tech rep onboard, but the water we provided made the difference," Pimpo said.
MSC dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Lewis and Clark also extensively supported replenishment operations before transiting to Norfolk in mid-February, and Sacagawea continues to provide support.