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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 15, 2010

A different mission for 'Mo'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The USS Missouri took on the role of a noncompliant foreign merchant vessel yesterday as teams from a Navy frigate and two destroyers conducted search and seizure training.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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PEARL HARBOR Most people who visit the battleship Missouri museum and memorial go aboard from the pierside stairs.

Sailors from two Navy destroyers and a frigate yesterday came from the sea, taking turns arriving in an inflatable boat and climbing the side of the battleship via a skinny cable ladder in body armor and helmets and with fake training guns drawn.

For part of the morning, a portion of the 887-foot "Mighty Mo" became a "noncompliant" foreign merchant vessel that the Navy searched for illegal activity.

It's part of a Navy mission that takes place every day in locations such as the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden, where piracy costs international shipping more than $100 million a year. Some ships are searched for contraband including drugs and weapons.

Ensign Ray Miller IV, who's on the Pearl Harbor frigate Crommelin, said yesterday's training brought together search and seizure teams from three ships, which is rare, and provided the opportunity to search an unfamiliar ship.

The Battleship Missouri Memorial volunteered the space.

"The great thing about being able to use the Missouri is we usually train on our own ship ... and all the teams coming on board today have never been on the Missouri in the spaces that they had to see today," Miller said.

Almost every surface ship has a "visit, board, search and seizure" team, Miller said.

Formal Navy search and seizure training was created following the Gulf War in 1990 to standardize ship interceptions that began as a result of United Nations resolutions.

About 10 a.m. yesterday, an inflatable boat pulled up to the starboard side of the Missouri with a search team of about eight from the USS O'Kane aboard.

All had blue or red simulated rifles or pistols drawn and pointed out from hunkered-down positions on the inflatable boat. The first sailor over the top arrived handgun-first.

Gunner's Mate 1st Class Javier Villarreal, 30, who serves on the O'Kane, said he's been on more than 140 real-world boardings since 1997. None involved gunfire, but all involve uncertainty.

"It's scary. I'm not going to lie," the Texas man said. "I get afraid sometimes but I know with my team and the training with each other, I know that we together can overcome any obstacles in our way."

On one occasion in the Persian Gulf, he and other team members had to search a container ship with more than 200 of the boxy containers. The sailors had to rappel down to each container using ropes.

"Makes for a pretty long day and a pretty interesting experience, sitting on top of a container ship looking down about 100 feet to the water," Villarreal said.

Half the O'Kane team went up two stairwells on the Missouri to an area designated as the bridge of the Missouri in its role as a foreign merchant vessel, and half went below to what was intended to represent an engineering area.

Ensign John Gaster, who was the "master" of the foreign ship, shouted to Villarreal's team, "Who are you? Get off my ship!" as the sailors swung their training weapons around looking for a threat.

In addition to the O'Kane and Crommelin, the destroyer Paul Hamilton also participated in the training.

Mike Pagano, the military liaison for the Missouri, said the battleship hosts a lot of re-enlistments and retirements, and providing the training venue yesterday is one way it supports the military.

The training on the small cordoned area of the ship also became a bit of a tourist attraction.

Richard Smith was visiting from New Jersey with his wife, Chell, son Joshua, 8, and daughter Sofia, 5. Joshua Smith got to meet some of the sailors taking part in the training and try on a Kevlar helmet.

"I thought it was great," Richard Smith said of the interaction.