By Gemma Nemenzo ALAMEDA, California
On Monday, July 18 at 2 p.m. here, the 95-person crew of BRP (for Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas)Gregorio del Pilar will begin their homeward journey to their mother unit, the Philippine Navy, aboard their new ship. The send-off ceremony, which is open to the public, will display the rituals and traditions that naval forces are known for. The ceremony will be presided by no less than the Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy, Vice Admiral Alex Pama, who is flying in from Manila for the occasion. Following his remarks wishing the crew a safe journey, Pamawill issue the sailing orders to the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Alberto Cruz, and the BRP Gregorio del Pilar sets sail, signaling the final departure of the former US Coast Guard Hamilton cutter from U.S. shores on its way to its new homeport. For those familiar with how Navy folks grow attached to their ship, the emotion of the moment will be unmistakable. It will not be the first time this particular vessel – the WHEC-715 – will dock in the Philippines. For its initial deployment in 1969, it sailed from Panama to Subic Naval Base, where it docked for four days before proceeding to its destination, South Vietnam, to pursue its mission of preventing weapons smuggling from North Vietnam at the height of the war. After its war mission, the 715 was used by the US Coast Guard for anti-drug smuggling duties and rescue operations in various countries until its final (and emotional) decommissioning last March. The Philippine government acquired the Hamilton early this year for approximately US$13 million (Php450 million) under the Foreign Military Sales program of the U.S .government. Once the largest ship of the American Coast Guard, the Hamilton is the first gas-turbine jet engine-powered vessel in the Philippine Navy fleet, making it the fastest, biggest and most powerful among the service’s aging inventory. It is described as “a high endurance cutter with close-in weapons system” and features a
helicopter flight deck with a retractable hangar, giving it capabilities for rescue operations and maritime law enforcement. The vessel is slated for deployment in the western and southern shores of the Philippines, to secure oil exploration activities. There are unconfirmed reports that she will be the government’s big ace in guarding Philippine interests in the Spratlys. At the helm of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar is Navy Captain Alberto Cruz, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of ’88. An amiable, soft-spoken guy whose easy-going style belies years of experience in commanding naval ships and people, his all-important mission is to deliver this very valuable vessel across the Pacific to the Philippine waters safe and intact. Not an easy task considering that this is the first time he and his crew will traverse this lengthy route and the first time they will navigate this ship with its unfamiliar technology in the open sea without the assistance and know-how of its former American crew. To top it all, they will be arriving in the Philippines right smack into typhoon season. But if there’s any group more up to the challenge, it’s this crew of naval officers and sailors handpicked by the Philippine Fleet Command (a special committee of top naval officials) based on their exemplary service and experience. “It’s safe to say that this crew, from the Commanding Officer down to the lowest ranking enlisted man, is the ‘crème de la crème’ of the Philippine Navy,” retired PN commander Archie Almario said. “You don’t send someone with a checkered service record to an international mission as important as this. This [assignment] is both a recognition of their talents and a reward for their good work.” Cruz and the seven other naval officers and 13 enlisted men/engineers that formed the initial group that trained with the Hamilton command were assigned in various naval ships stationed in different areas of the archipelago when they got the call from their superiors last January. Report to [the PN headquarters] Manila for a new assignment was the missive. There they were told of the government’s acquisition and the role they would play in the process. As commanding officer, Cruz already had his complete crew chosen for him. Among the seven are the executive officer Navy Commander Reynaldo Lopez (PMA Class 1992) and Lt. Junior Grade Andrelee Mojica (the valedictorian of PMA Class of 2007), the damage control officer, who is one of three women officers on the ship. The chosen 21 underwent rigorous physical exams and intensive neuro-psychiatric evaluations, the latter crucial in determining whether each person had the mental and psychological capacity to withstand the challenge of being away from their families for an indeterminate period, the stability to face up to the pressure-cooker demands of a new environment in a different country, and the rigor to learn new technologies and procedures within a relatively short period of time. Cruz credits the NPE evaluation for the relatively problem-free dynamic that currently governs the quality of interaction among the ship’s crew. “We have met each other before [this mission], but only casually,” the commanding officer says. “But somehow we bonded immediately.” On February 25, the group landed in San Francisco and were immediately whisked to Alameda aboard the USCGC Boutwell, the sister ship of the Hamilton, for hands-on training. They were cut off from all communications with the outside world for two full months as the vessel was used for a highly classified U.S. Coast Guard anti-drug smuggling operation that brought them to as far as Ecuador and El Salvador. With no telephone or Internet access, the Filipino navy on board joked among themselves that they had become a “lost command.” Worse, they had to endure meals without rice for weeks on end, which as we know, is tantamount to torture for Filipinos from the Philippines. “We had salad, potatoes, meat, potatoes and potatoes,” one remarked. No wonder they had to go through the NPEs. It was only when the tsunami in Japan happened that they were allowed to call their families. When the Boutwell returned to San Diego, the final sale of the Hamilton to the PH government had been confirmed and was ready to sail for Alameda for the formal turnover. Cruz and his crew asked that they be allowed to ride with the Hamilton but as passengers, since training on the actual vessel (already named Ex Hamilton after its decommissioning) would start only after the May 13 formal turnover ceremony. With the Hamilton rechristened Gregorio del Pilar (in honor of the brave young general who was killed in the Battle of Tirad Pass in 1899 at the height of the Philippine-American War), Cruz took command of the vessel. The rest of the crew were flown in from the Philippines to work alongside their American trainors. By then, the original 21 have had enough experience with gas turbine engine technology to be confident that they would be able to get the ship to sail. For a journey across the Pacific, however, more weeks of intense training were required. Finally, in early July, they did a four-day run at sea along the coast of California for a test of the crew’s capabilities and the ship’s sea-worthiness. After that, the American trainors de-boarded and the Filipino naval officers and men were on their own. Henceforth, the Philippine Navy assumed complete control of its new crown jewel.