West Virginia's own Hershel "Woody" Williams (far left) at
the commissioning of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB 4)

Story by MC2 (SW) Darien G. Kenney

NORFOLK, VA – With the ships namesake front and center, The Honorable James F. Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, commissioned the Expeditionary Sea Base ship USS Hershel "Woody" Williams (ESB 4), during a ceremony today in downtown Norfolk.

  The ship is named for Marine Corps veteran, Hershel "Woody" Williams, known for his heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. On Oct. 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman presented Williams with the Medal of Honor during a group ceremony at the White House.

"This is an ESB, an expeditionary sea base," said Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, describing the ship to the crowd. "It is a floating, moving island. Two things stand out: versatility and affordability. This ship is purpose built to be versatile and flexible, modular. We need more ships like this."

In commissioning ESB 4, the nearly 1,200 guests saw the ship converted from a USNS to a USS asset in order for the warship to meet the challenges and requirements of serving in and around the U.S. Africa Command, U.S. European Command and the 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. Under the law of armed conflict, missions such as special operations staging and mine-countermeasure operations must be conducted by a warship.

"I am proud and confident that Hershel Woody Williams, like its namesake, will serve our country, serve it and protect it without hesitation, will overcome adversity and allow us to win," said The Honorable James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

The ship is designed around four core capabilities: aviation facilities, berthing, equipment staging and command and control assets. It will primarily support a variety of aviation mine countermeasure and special operations missions freeing up amphibious warships and surface combatant ships to be reassigned for more demanding operational missions.

Hershel "Woody" Williams follows USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3), which is forward deployed to the 5th Fleet Area of Operations. The 784ft.-long vessel features a 52,000 square-foot flight deck, fuel and equipment storage, magazines, repair and mission-planning spaces. Its features include a four spot flight deck, a mission deck and hangar, work and living spaces for a couple hundred staff and embarked personnel.

Assuming command of ESB 4 is Capt. David L. Gray, a Massachusetts native. Under his command the mobile sea base will be forward deployed and operate in a Blue/Gold rotation, in accordance with Navy deployment policies.

"Am I luckier to have the ship's namesake and national treasure, Woody, to be here with us and these distinguished Medal of Honor recipients, or am I more blessed to be given the opportunity to command again with this talented group of officers, chiefs and crew to serve our country one more time Gray," asked the crowd.

"Today, I feel like the luckiest captain in the Navy."

Also delivering remarks at the event was The Honorable Elaine Luria, U.S. Representative for Virginia's 2nd Congressional District; and Rear Adm. Roy I. Kitchener, Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, who praised the crew and their ship.

"This ship, by design, is intended to go over the horizon and into harm’s way and I am confident they will do so, combat ready and battle minded," said Kitchener. "It is peace we seek and peace we will keep."

The Honorable Joe Manchin, U.S. Senator for West Virginia's 13th District, delivered the event's Principal Address. Born and raised just 10 miles from Williams, the Senator told the audience about growing up in West Va.; how Williams came to join the Marine Corps; about his time on Iwo Jima and the many, many years of service to veterans in his home state and beyond, following the war.

"He's West Va. strong through and through," said Manchin. "I have never had a more prestigious honor to be able to be here with a person who is truly an American hero."

The tradition of commissioning a ship is an act or ceremony of placing a ship into active service. It is a time-honored celebration that applauds the hard work, dedication and teamwork it takes to get a U.S. Navy vessel in the water and out to the fleet. 

Williams is the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima. He helped set the ship's first watch, but it was his two daughters, Ms. Travie Ross and Ms. Tracie Ross, who symbolically brought the ship to life – and sent the Sailors running aboard – after urging them to "Man the ship and bring her to life!"

"This is a moment in history that is beyond my comprehension," said Williams, in closing out the patriotic ceremony.

"This is not just about me; it's about them. It's about those that never got to come home. It's about families who sacrificed one of their own so we can be who we are and live in a free country and have all the advantages we have. It is our prayer and the prayer of millions of Americans, that all wars will cease and there will come a time when sacrifices in our Armed Forces will no longer be necessary.

"May all those who serve aboard this ship that bears my name be safe and proud. May she have God's blessings for a long life of service to America, the greatest country on Earth."