USS Okinawa (LPH-3) was laid down on the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Okinawa at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and commissioned on April 14th, 1962 with Captain William E. Lemos at the helm. The Okinawa was the second ship of the Iwo Jima-class LPH. The original Landing Platform title was then replaced by "Amphibious Assault Ship (Helicopter)". The LPH was planned and built for amphibious assault by the vertical envelopment method. The ship was designed to carry 25 helicopters based on mission parameters with the number of helicopters increasing with new upgraded models becoming available. The primary mission of the ship was to deliver a Marine Battalion with its full complement of weapons and support equipment to a battle area by helicopter. Now beach obstructions, flooded fields and poor terrain could be vertically overcome and not delay ground forces for days - some delays requiring dedicated engineers to help traverse an area or clear altogether. The US Navy, being a big proponent of "multiple mission" capabilities, now had a perfect platform to combine fleet missions with that, in the past, had required their own ships to be committed. As combat always leads to casualties, the LPH also served as a Medical Duty Ship (MDS) complete with onboard medical personnel. Being the largest and most equipped ship of her type, the LPH-3 became the (ATFCS) Amphibious Task Force Control Ship for a mission commander to administer an entire operation.
The Iwo Jima-class had a powerplant consisting of two boilers and one geared turbine which turned a single shaft at 22,000 shaft horsepower. Its armament included 3-inch twin barrel cannons, a 20mm Vulcan/Phalanx Close-in Weapons System (CIWS) and a number of 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns. The crew complement consisted of 50 officers and some 650 enlisted personnel to support operations.
The USMC assault battalion made up the "big dog" detachment onboard the ship. To help run this well-oiled fighting machine, a full service headquarters and applicable support departments were deployed aboard as they would have been on land. The commanding officer was a full Colonel or a Lieutenant Colonel with a Major as second in line. A Sergeant Major plus staff comprised the balance of the headquarters company. To support the assault teams there were two artillery companies as well. A total of 1,200 to 2,000 marines could make up the USMC component onboard the vessel, though this varied based on the mission.
While LPH vessels were similar in most respects to their larger brethren - the aircraft carrier - the role of an amphibious assault ship was inherently different. It aviation wings managed helicopters to help deliver and support forces ashore rather than using fixed-wing strike aircraft in direct action. The marines needed a delivery system from sea; no longer would the bloody and vulnerable landing craft actions seen in World War 2 and the Korean War be repeated - in which the loading ramp fell down and exposed the troops to a hail of machine gun fire before they could react. The Vietnam War would instead be America's first "airmobile" helicopter war.
After completing her sea trials, the USS Okinawa sailed from Philadelphia in June of 1962 for her homeport, Norfolk. After a shakedown cruise out of Guantanamo Bay Cuba she returned to Norfolk. The ship departed for her first fleet exercise in the Caribbean in mid-October. Not too long after, Okinawa received the message from headquarters of the "Cuban Missile Crises" and was ordered to join the Cuban Quarantine until December 3rd. She then returned to Norfolk for needed corrective repairs discovered during her "shakedown" cruise. After some 30 days, she was made ready for fleet duty. Okinawa continued to cruse the Caribbean to train her crew and the marines with helicopter launching and recovery; she continued this deployment thru 1963 and into 1964. During June 1964 she sailed to New York for the World's Fair. When the gates opened for the fair 51 million people came to visit. Technology and progress was on full display and into New York harbor arrived the USS Okinawa with her new technology and a couple of thousand military visitors. This was also a demonstration of U.S. naval power to foreign participants at the fair - a sort of propoganda offering if you will.
After a goodwill stop in France and a visit to Plymouth, England, Okinawa arrived back in Norfolk at the end of November. In May of 1965 she was directed to provide support to the area around the Dominican Republic. Dominican armed forces seized the government radio stations in Santo Domingo and attempted to overthrow the ruling civilian junta in favor of deposed former president Juan Bosch. Accordingly, the U.S. government, while trying to arrange for a cease-fire locally and through the OAS Organization of American States in Washington, began immediate preparations for the evacuation of its citizens and other foreign nationals who might wish to leave the Dominican Republic. Okinawa was perfect for this operation and flew missions in support as needed.
In late 1964 Okinawa participated in "Operation Steel Pike I", an amphibious exercise with NATO in Spanish waters that was larger than any previous war game. An amphibious force gathered that consisted of some 60 ships stocked with 22,000 marines and 5,000 vehicles - Okinawa naturally played her part and the Soviets were, of course, closely watching.
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