The Navy’s 7th Fleet celebrated its 75th anniversary this week at its birthplace Down Under.
The festivities kicked off Monday in Brisbane, Australia, with a series of performances by the 7th Fleet band at high schools around the city.
On Wednesday, the fleet’s commander, Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, laid a wreath at Submariner’s Heritage Trail, the former site of Navy submarines in Australia during World War II and a memorial to submariners of all nations who lost their lives in defense of Australia. He also visited Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s former office and sat in his chair.
The fleet’s history stretches back to March 15, 1943, a year and three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It was placed under the command of MacArthur, who was tasked with assembling allied forces to push back against the rapidly advancing Japanese military in the Pacific.
“One message generated 7th Fleet,” Sawyer told Stars and Stripes in an interview last week. “It really was an outcome of what was ongoing during World War II. It provided geographic support to General MacArthur and what he was doing down south.”
The fleet participated in major operations that liberated the Philippines from Japan. After the end of the war, it shifted its headquarters to Qingdao, China, where it was based from 1946 to 1949.
Seventh Fleet left China following the country’s takeover by the communist forces and relocated to Subic Bay, Philippines, and then later to Japan.
In the decades after World War II, the fleet participated in both the Korean War — in which it conducted landings at Inchon that helped turn the tide during the conflict — and the Vietnam War.
Changing politics and alliances in the Pacific late found the U.S. partnering with former enemies Japan and Vietnam. Japan has hosted U.S. forces in the Pacific since the 1950s, and today the 7th Fleet is headquartered at Yokosuka Naval Base.
Vietnam, threatened by aggressive Chinese territorial claims in the region, has slowly increased relations with its former enemy — efforts spearheaded by naval forces in the region. Earlier this month, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson conducted a four-day port call in Danang, becoming the first U.S. carrier to visit Vietnam since the war.
“If you would’ve put yourself back in time 40 years ago and said, ‘Are we ever gonna be standing in Danang singing each other’s national anthems on board an aircraft carrier having a big top reception and toasting each other?’ there is not many people that would’ve taken that bet and said that’s what we’re gonna do,” Sawyer told Stars and Stripes.
Although the fleet hasn’t participated in a major Pacific conflict in decades, threats remain that keep its sailors busy. These include North Korea and an increasingly assertive China.
Seventh Fleet’s ballistic-missile defense ships help shield Japan from possible North Korean attacks, and Navy vessels often conduct freedom-of-navigation operations near disputed islets militarized by China in the South China Sea.
“You’ve got North Korea, which has done a lot of intercontinental ballistic missile testing and some nuclear testing,” Sawyer told Stars and Stripes. “You’ve got some revisionist powers in Russia and China … issues down in the South China Sea with land reclamation and militarization of those islands, concerns about the Senkakau Islands with the Japanese and the Chinese … that’s caused the operational demand to go up.”
Sawyer said a “confluence of like-minded nations” and overlapping national interests will allow the Navy to keep working alongside long-standing allies such as Japan and South Korea as well as newer partners like Vietnam and India.
He added that the fleet helps provide security and stability in the region, which allows countries to flourish economically.
“The common theme from 1943 to now is we’re operating in and around the Indo-Pacific region,” he said. “Back then our job was working with like-minded countries and navies to provide security and stability to the region. That’s what forward-deployed forces are for. We’re here to provide security.”
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