Within hours of the June 17 collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship from the Philippines, employees and volunteers from the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) in Yokosuka, Japan, were mobilizing. By the time the damaged ship docked at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, NMCRS volunteers had organized, transported, and set up an ad hoc thrift shop pier side, to provide—at no cost—clean clothes, uniforms, and shoes to Sailors whose belongings had been lost or ruined.
“As soon as we received news that the USS Fitzgerald would be pulling into port, my first priority was to provide information to anxious community members wondering ‘What is being done for the Fitzgerald Sailors? How can I help?’” explained NMCRS Yokosuka Volunteer and Communications Lead, Sarah Buchholz. “One of our initial Facebook posts was about NMCRS volunteers providing Fitzgerald Sailors with clean clothes, uniforms, and shoes. For many, pictures of our volunteers on the pier provided comfort.”
As NMCRS Yokosuka Director, Jill Warning, stood pier side with her volunteers, she observed that, “the responses of Fitzgerald Sailors varied widely, from relief and almost mirth— presumably at arriving successfully—to raw and rugged emotion barely suppressed as they hurried past us to seek refuge elsewhere.” At least one-third of the ship’s crew emerged from their ship with only the clothes they were wearing when the collision happened. “We were seeing young Sailors wearing coveralls with senior rank insignia, which was a bit confusing to our pier-side volunteers. Finally, one of our volunteers, Denise McCarrel, saw three “Senior Chief Smiths” in a row and figured out that those who had dry uniforms had given their coveralls to those whose uniforms had been destroyed in a flooded compartment or from working to keep their ship afloat as they returned to Yokosuka,” said Warning.
Working side-by-side with the NMCRS pier-side team was Cassandra Aucoin, NMCRS Yokosuka’s Honorary Chair of Volunteers. Mrs. Aucoin’s compassionate and positive leadership put volunteers more at ease with helping Fitzgerald Sailors select gently-used clothes, shoes, and uniforms as they departed their ship. Stopping to pick out a pair of pants and a shirt may not have seemed important to those who had just experienced a collision at sea, but our volunteers helped them realize they would need to have dry, clean clothes to wear the next day.
Mandy Seeley, NMCRS Yokosuka Volunteer and Thrift Shop Lead, was instrumental to the successful set-up and organization of the pier-side thrift shop, and eventual relocation to a base gym, called the Hawk’s Nest. Under her astute leadership during the hours and days after the accident, NMCRS volunteers accepted, sorted, cleaned, and distributed thousands of clothing and uniform items to Fitzgerald Sailors. “Their immediate need was for Navy Working Uniforms and boots, but soon Fitzgerald Sailors were returning to our thrift shop to replace missing or damaged service dress uniforms and shoes to attend the memorial service for their seven Shipmates,” Seeley stated. “And we were there for them. Volunteers brought their sewing machines and immediately made alterations and sewed on rank insignia and USS Fitzgerald unit patches.”
“I was amazed by their composure and kindness,” recalled NMCRS Yokosuka Chair of Volunteers, Caroline Turco. “Despite our encouragement—sometimes insistence—that they take more than one pair of socks, or whatever it was, they were unbelievably humble, telling us to keep the extra items for Shipmates who needed it more.”
“Our Relief Services Assistant, Chris Sexstella, coordinated directly with the Command Master Chief to ensure each Sailor had the uniform items needed to attend the memorial. Then she and our volunteers bundled up uniforms by name so every Fitzgerald Sailor could easily identify and receive their donated service dress uniform,” Warning praised.
“In the first 48 hours, like most of our volunteers, I took on any task that needed to be done,” recalled Volunteer and Casework Lead, Lauren Tella. “We all answered phones, sorted clothing, shuttled service members around the base, attended briefs and All Hands calls, and answered as many questions as best we could. I did my best to keep our office open for service members while our Director and Relief Services Assistance met with military leaders and commands.”
After the initial distribution of clothing and uniforms, NMCRS Yokosuka thrift shop closed temporarily, except for Fitzgerald Sailors, so volunteers could sort and organize the enormous amount of recently donated items. “As each day unfolded, my primary role was to provide the most up-to-date information through Facebook about our donation needs and ongoing relief efforts,” said Buchholz. “Navy personnel from San Diego, Sigonella, Sasebo, Hampton Roads, Pensacola, and other bases wanted to know how they could support their Shipmates. The response was incredibly heartwarming.”
“A group of my Japanese friends got together to make a donation, one I knew they couldn’t easily afford,” explained Turco. “Watching, as people like them—wholly unconnected with the US Navy, the Fitzgerald, or NMCRS—open their hearts and wallets to help our Sailors—our family—was unbelievably emotional. All I could do was be grateful and try to tell them just how appreciative we all were for their thoughtfulness and generosity.”
Once the Fitzgerald Sailors dealt with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many visited the NMCRS Yokosuka office seeking financial assistance, in the form of interest-free loans or grants. “They had immediate needs for items like eyeglasses, cell phones, and money to pay their bills because they had spent their paychecks on food, toiletries, and replacing electronic equipment like tablets and laptops,” explained Tella. “Long term, we expect to see Fitzgerald Sailors needing our financial assistance while their claims for damages are processed by the Navy.”
On June 27, the Navy held a memorial service for the seven Sailors who died in the accident. Because space was limited where the memorial service was held, NMCRS volunteers and staff participated with more than 2,000 others in a Line of Honor marking the processional route as the families and mourners moved to the memorial service.
The USS Fitzgerald remains in port Fleet Activities Yokosuka as repairs are made and the accident is investigated. Meanwhile, her crew is waiting to hear what’s next for them. Many will be reassigned to other ships and duty stations. NMCRS continues to support them.
“I was most pleased with your ability to anticipate Sailor needs and quickly organize volunteers prior to the ship’s return to Yokosuka. The standing up of the volunteer center at the Hawk’s Nest was a brilliant idea and allowed for a central location to receive much needed donations for Fitzgerald’s crew.”
– VADM Joseph P. Aucoin, USN Commander, Seventh Fleet, Yokosuka, Japan.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso