The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams left Naval Station Norfolk on Monday for its inaugural deployment, headed to Africa.
It’s the ship’s first time setting sail with one fewer letter in its moniker. The Navy redesignated the former USNS Williams into the new warship at a commissioning ceremony in March.
The slight change in its name means the ship can legally carry out offensive military operations, such as allowing Marines or Navy SEALs to launch attacks directly from the ship, The Virginian-Pilot previously reported. A USNS ship under the command of a civilian can engage in combat only if it is defending itself.
The Williams — whose namesake is the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, and was at the March ceremony — is a 784-foot-long vessel with a 52,000 square-foot flight deck, fuel and equipment storage, magazines and repair and mission-planning spaces. It includes work and living spaces for a couple hundred staff and embarked personnel, according to the Navy.
It can launch and recover small boats, helicopters and the MV-22 Osprey.
Unlike other warships, expeditionary sea bases such as the Williams operate with a hybrid crew of civilians and military personnel. A civilian crew of 44 operates the ship itself, such as navigation, engineering, food service, electrical, shipboard communications and cranes.
About 100 sailors on board will conduct security and intelligence functions, operate boats and aircraft, and staff a medical department, the Pilot reported in March. Additional military personnel, such as Marines and special operators, can be brought on board to stage operations from the ship, including humanitarian missions.
The Williams will primarily help with aviation mine countermeasures and special operations missions under U.S. Naval Forces Africa, according to a Navy news release, freeing up amphibious warships and others to be reassigned for more demanding tasks.
The crew will operate in a so-called blue-gold rotation, similar to other Navy platforms.
“We are excited to embark on the ship’s first deployment,” Capt. David Gray, commanding officer of the ship’s current “blue crew,” said in a statement Monday. “For the majority of our Sailors, this will be their first deployment, and I can’t think of a more exciting area to operate in.”
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