USNS Henson: sailing the waters of Indonesia

The following blog post was written by Capt. Greg Gillotte, a civilian contract mariner and master of USNS Henson (T-AGS 63), the Military Sealift Command oceanographic survey ship recently invited to participate in Sail Morotai 2012, a formation exercise off Indonesia’s island of Morotai, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Morotai.

The sail from Sasebo, Japan to the waters of Indonesia was supposed to be routine as we headed to our next scheduled survey mission with our embarked team of hydrographers and oceanographers from the Naval Oceanographic Office

MOROTAI ISLAND, Indonesia (Sept. 15, 2012) Military Sealift Command oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson (T-AGS 63) sails past a reviewing platform on Morotai Island where Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and other dignitaries, observed 25 naval ships from Indonesia, Australia, Singapore and the U.S. in a formation exercise to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Morotai during World War II. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. Adrian Jansen/Released)

The voyage took an unexpected turn when U.S. 7th Fleet tasked USNS Henson (T-AGS 63) to divert to the island of Morotai to participate in a formation exercise with the Indonesian, Australian and Singapore navies.

Morotai is one of Indonesia’s northernmost islands, located between the large island of Sulawesi and the southernmost islands of the Philippines.

USNS Henson was invited to attend a ceremony commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Morotai, Sept. 15. Our role would be to participate in a column of 25 naval ships and render a salute to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and scores of other dignitaries.

On Sept. 15, 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered U.S. and Australian forces to invade the island.  Allied forces overpowered Japanese troops and built airfields, established an operational harbor and fuel storage facilities which would later play a key role in the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation.

USNS Henson was the perfect choice to represent the U.S. Navy because our oceanographic survey ships have a long-standing relationship with the Indonesian navy.  Along with our partners from NAVOCEANO, we have completed more than 200 surveys to aid in the safe navigation of Indonesia’s vast territorial waters.

To prepare for this event, the ship arrived near Morotai Sept. 13.  Here, we embarked Lt.jg Yosua Sabar Panjaitan of the Indonesian navy as a liaison officer.  I also worked closely with Cmdr. Brian Delamont, commanding officer of HMAS Sirius, an oiler representing the Australian navy at the event. 

USNS Henson made three practice runs, training in following a carefully choreographed course at a distance of 450 yards behind the ship in front.

The day of the event, we were the fourth ship in the column.

MSC’s contract mariners joined civilian staff members from NAVOCEANO on the rails of the ship.  Thirteen NAVOCEANO personnel wore bright orange work vests while eight mariners from Henson wore black force protection vests and kevlar helmets.  While none of us are uniformed personnel, we wanted to give the impression of uniformity to the dignitaries.

Henson passed within a hundred yards from shore in direct view of the reviewing stand.  Our crew on deck paid tribute to the Indonesian president by rendering a salute.

USNS Henson approaching the reviewing stand.

The constant course changes and speed changes proved to be challenging even for the most experienced helmsman.  I decided to use the vessel’s state-of-the-art dynamic positioning system, a computer-controlled steering system operated by a joystick on the ship’s bridge, maneuvering the ship via its rotating propellers instead of a traditional rudder. 

In its entirety the PASSEX lasted only an hour, but it was an exhilarating experience for all aboard. As we embark on our next survey mission, I think I can speak for the entire crew in saying we were honored to participate.

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