Local News

Ships Shove Off As N.C. Deployments Continue

Posted January 13, 2003 8:21 a.m. EST

— Two tugboats guided the USS Gunston Hall out of port and out to sea Sunday as North Carolina military bases continued to prepare for possible action in the Persian Gulf.

The amphibious dock landing ship ferried equipment and troops that are part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade's 7,000 members bound for the Middle East.

About 2,500 Marines left Saturday, with the rest expected to depart by Monday night.

A spokeswoman for the Marine unit, Capt. Kelly Frushour, said she did not know how many were aboard the Gunston Hall.

Meanwhile, Marines at Cherry Point on Sunday continued their preparations to depart on Monday. Two AV-8B Harrier squadrons - Marine Attack Squadron 542 and 223 - will fly aboard amphibious ships Monday.

The Marine Attack Squadrons will deploy with Marine Aircraft Group 29 at New River in support of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

Units and individuals from MAG-14, Marine Wing Support Group 27 and Marine Air Control Group 28 have operationally attached to MAG-29.

MAG-29 plus attachments will deploy as the air combat element of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Richard F. Natonski.

At Morehead City on Sunday, local resident Susan Lupton and her 5-year-old son, Bradley, watched the Gunston Hall's departure from port from a nearby marina's dock, despite the biting wind.

"I don't have anyone on that ship," Lupton said. "But they're all ours.

"Anytime a ship leaves and I can come watch, I come to the port to see it off."

The Marines were part of 35,000 military personnel given deployment orders Friday as the United States builds its military force if there is conflict with Iraq.

Four Virginia-based Navy ships that received deployment orders this weekend left their home ports Sunday. The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan left Norfolk Naval Station after loading 1,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune who rode buses north.

Capt. Earle S. Yerger, the Bataan's commanding officer, said it is not "completely out of the ordinary" for marines to board the ship in Norfolk, but typically the ship would head to North Carolina to pick them up.

"This is a very efficient way to get a whole bunch of people on board the ship," he said.

Another amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, and the amphibious dock landing ships USS Ashland and USS Portland were expected to stop in North Carolina to pick up the rest of the task force.

The Bataan and Kearsarge each have a crew of about 1,070 sailors and can each carry a landing force of about 1,900 Marines.

The Ashland can carry up to 500 Marines, while the Portland can carry about 330 Marines.

Alison Beale, 25, of Gastonia, and Katherine Hinson, 19, of Rock Hill, S.C., sat in a pickup truck together watching the USS Portland slowly pull away from the pier. Both recently married sailors aboard the Portland.

Both women said they were worried because they believe the ship may get involved if war breaks out between the United States and Iraq.

Beale said she told her husband, 22-year-old Machinists' Mate Alan Beale, that "you've got my heart, and you're taking it with you to Iraq. Please be very safe with it and bring it back to me."

Then she added: "He's all I've got."

Marine jets and helicopters were scheduled to leave Monday and land on the ships.

Two squadrons of AV-8B Harrier jets based at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station "will be flying out all day Monday on staggered departures," said Capt. Bruce Frame, a base spokesman.

Each squadron generally contains 12 planes. Frame estimated about 200 to 300 pilots and maintenance and support crews will deploy with the jets.

Marine assault and transport helicopters are scheduled to leave the New River Air Station Monday morning.