ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA – The mightily built lady shoved off from Norfolk, Va., Friday morning carrying a nearly 1,000-member crew set to join their families Sunday as they now will be calling Mayport Naval Station home.
Her roughly paved flight deck is nearly 850 feet long and 112 feet wide for use by up to 35 helicopters and fixed-wing planes. She can also transport up to 800 Marines to spit out of her belly at a moment's notice as part of her primary mission to transport troops by sea and air to a land battlefield.
She has miles of wiring wrapped around her, bells and whistles that sound off every so often and a spic-and-span steel interior that would make any CO or XO or rookie seaman -- the real grunts of her operation -- proud.
She's the 13-year-old USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). The multi-purpose amphibious assault ship is part of a new three-ship group destined to boost the Jacksonville-area economy and provide the changing, rapid-force military another port to draw from in times of war, often for small attacks or special forces operations.
From the saltiest of sea dogs in the early days of sailing to the futuristic voyages of Capt. James T. Kirk, men and women have traditionally, often lovingly, referred to their ships as a she. Those aboard the Iwo Jima are no exception.
"It's a term of endearment, really," said Chief Petty Officer Marlon Singh, 40, greeting passengers as they climbed aboard. "We treat our ships like they're actual living things."
Lt. Kristen Wheeler said she is proud to be among the nearly 200 women aboard the ship.
"It's our mothership," said Wheeler, 37, a 16-year Navy veteran who is set to be the ship's combat systems officer. "She's one that gets us back and forth, takes care of us and takes care of the nation."
Second Class Petty Officer Richard Agbado, 32, said that every time he boards the Iwo Jima, he feels the ship's motherly embrace.
"I feel in my heart it's a she because our mothers have us, accept us and give us all the qualities we need to grow up and become good gentlemen," Agbado said. "Fathers straighten us out, but we always fall back on our mothers for support."
Seaman Jeffrey McRae, polishing a plaque dedicated to the Iwo Jima before she departed Norfolk, said the ship has the qualities of a soothing, yet sometimes stern mother.
"She'll rock you right to sleep," McRae said, "and she'll keep you awake."
The other ships in the Iwo Jima Amphibious Readiness Group are the USS New York (LPD-21) that arrived in December and the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) arriving the same day as the Iwo Jima. Another 900 sailors and support personnel will move into the area when six littoral combat ships come in 2016.
The Iwo Jima, the seventh WASP class ship of its design, looks much like an aircraft carrier. It is named for the bloody World War II battle in which three Army divisions and an amphibious corps of Marines captured the Pacific island from 20,000 Japanese.
The ship, the second Navy vessel of its kind to take the name, was launched in 2001. Among many of her other features, the Iwo Jima has:
-- Four missile launchers
-- Two .50-caliber machine guns
-- Two 600-pound boilers
-- Two geared steam turbines with 70,000 total horsepower available, making it the last conventionally powered steam ship in the Navy.
Capt. Jim McGovern shies away from referring to his ship by gender, though he acknowledged that hearing "Steady as she goes" on the bridge is a common occurrence.
"I call it 40,000 tons of American fighting steel," McGovern said.
But Jennifer Schmitz, a Mandarin resident and guest aboard the ship, said she thinks it's an honor to refer to a ship as a woman and praised the largely male crew that cares for her.
"Women can be beautiful and strong. Men are meant to care for them," Schmitz said. "I don't have any problem with that."