Homer Alaska - Boat of the week

Story last updated at 9:42 PM on Wednesday, June 15, 2011

USS Decatur bears hero's name

Boat of the week

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

USS Decatur is moored at the Deep Water Dock in Homer.

If you wonder why the 280 sailors who visited Homer over the weekend had big smiles as they walked around town, consider the average living quarters of the men and women who call USS Decatur home. Senior officers share a berth so narrow you could stretch your arms out and touch both sides of the room. Racks, or beds, are stacked three high and barely wide enough to roll over on.

Junior officers share berths that have 18 racks. Enlisted country is even more crowded, with berths in the dozens. A co-ed crew commanded by Cmdr. Shanti Sethi, the 12th woman commander in the U.S. Navy, men and women work together but live in segregated quarters.

Decatur has a weight room and a small gym with exercise equipment, and an aft helicopter deck big enough to play basketball — as long as you don't lose balls overboard. Otherwise, below decks it can be tight and cramped. To guard against chemical warfare, sailors enter through airlocks with a change in air pressure enough to pop ears.

Last Thursday, Decatur stopped in Homer, its only Alaska stop, for four days of shore leave and to take on supplies. The Arleigh-Burke class destroyer is in the north Pacific Ocean to participate in Exercise Northern Edge, a Navy-Air Force-Coast Guard training mission to train the organizations to operate better together.

For many sailors, it was their first visit to Alaska, said Ensign Ryan Andrews, Decatur's public affairs officer — but not for him. Andrews spent part of his childhood in Wasilla and was returning.

"There were some sailors who had never seen mountains," Andrews said. "There were some who had never seen snow."

Unlike the last visit of a Navy destroyer to Homer, the USS Lake Champlain in 2004, security was tighter for Decatur's visit. Due to alert levels increased after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, no public tours were held. Press tours were held and veterans with the American Legion Post 16 got a tour in appreciation for a barbecue held for Decatur crew last week. Armed sailors with automatic weapons patrolled the dock and ship. Four .50-caliber machine guns stood ready, a nod to the reality of low-intensity combat tactics on a ship with otherwise high-tech weaponry.

Named after Commodore Stephen Decatur, a painting of the naval hero hangs in the officer's mess, along with drawings and photos of the four previous ships named Decatur. Commodore Decatur gained fame for his raid on the captured Philadelphia, when in 1804 he led a raid into Tripoli harbor and burned the ship — an act which earned him the rank of captain at 25, the youngest captain ever in the Navy. Decatur also defeated and captured the British frigate Macedonian during the War of 1812.

If Commodore Decatur had the modern Decatur in the 19th century, he could have destroyed an entire fleet with her weapons systems. A 5-inch, 54-caliber gun at the bow looks the fiercest, but fore and aft batteries of 90 missile cells pack the biggest wallop. Arleigh-Burke class destroyers serve three combat missions against anything that moves above, under and on the ocean: anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare. The vertical launch system cells can shoot Tomahawk cruise missiles, standard missiles and anti-submarine missiles. The destroyer also has guided missile launchers and torpedo tubes.

Decatur also can deliver deadly human weapons, too. Andrews said Decatur has transported Navy SEAL teams on several missions. The aft pad can land helicopters up to the size of the Seahawk, the Navy version of the Army Blackhawk and Coast Guard Jayhawk.

In the Cold War arms race against the former Soviet Union, Decatur and other similar ships had an edge over Russian ships. Unlike Soviet vessels, which had to stop to refuel at sea, Decatur has a system that allows it to take on fuel while cruising at 20 knots. Four General Electric gas turbine engines pack a whopping 100,000 hp — the same kind of engine used in airliners.

Bright orange booms around Decatur while moored at the Deep Water Dock protected Kachemak Bay from spills. Less obvious are other environmental measures. In Andrews' berth, he had three trash cans for metal, plastics and paper. Metal is shredded and dumped overboard. A machine melts the plastics and compresses it into disks about the size of a pizza.

SpringBoard, a program with the Juneau Economic Development Council that works with the Department of Defense on technology transfers, is working to find uses for the plastic disks, said Zach Wilkinson, a technology transfer associate.

To help with morale, Decatur has some benefits. Crew have email and web access, including a USS Decatur Facebook page. Flash-frozen food keeps vegetables relatively fresh on long voyages. In the mess, fresh fruit remains out, an encouragement to encourage sailors to eat healthy snacks.

And then there's the shore leave.

"Our crew really enjoyed the visit to Homer," Andrews said. "The city was very friendly and welcoming.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.