“It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”
That former longtime U.S. Navy advertising slogan has already proven to be true for Rocky Mountain High School graduate Cody Ward during his six years at sea.
Ward was serving in Japan in March of 2011 when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck the northern coast of Japan east of the city of Sendai, causing widespread destruction and washing an incredible amount of debris out to sea. The young boatswain’s mate serving aboard the destroyer USS John S. McCain piloted a rescue boat that searched the debris for survivors.
It has already been an interesting Naval career for Ward, the son of Clay and Janet Ward of Deaver. After his graduation from Rocky Mountain in 2006, where he excelled in football – two years selected all-state as a running back and linebacker – and basketball, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in November of 2006.
He underwent basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, north of Chicago, then continued at Great Lakes for boatswain’s mate A school.
Ward was then assigned to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear powered Nimitz Class carrier based in Bremerton, Wash. As a boatswain’s mate, Ward was in charge of all heavy equipment and two seven-meter rigid hull inflatable boats used for rescue work and boardings of small craft. He also worked with the huge ship’s mooring lines, anchors and refueling at sea operations.
Ward served two eight-month deployments aboard the Stennis: in 2007 in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and in 2009 for a port-to-port deployment in the Pacific.
He transferred in January of 2011 to the destroyer USS John S. McCain, which was based at Yokosuka, Japan, just south of Tokyo. The USS McCain had been at sea for two months performing operations with the Japanese Navy to keep an eye on North Korea when disaster struck the region.
The Tohoku earthquake struck about 200 miles north of Tokyo on March 11, 2011, off the eastern coast of Japan. The McCain was just entering Tokyo Bay when large waves from the quake hit the normally calm bay, snapping the mooring lines of U.S. Navy ships already docked. Tugs heading to assist the McCain quickly turned to help the docked ships while the McCain turned around and anchored at sea. Sailors could see the massive fireball of a factory that exploded near the coast due to the earthquake.
The USS McCain went back out to sea for the night, then returned to port the next day. By then, word of the damage caused by massive earthquake – the largest ever to hit Japan and one of the five largest in modern history – had reached the McCain, including the news that a tsunami with waves more than 130 feet high, reaching up to 10 miles inland, had struck the northern coast near Sendai.
The McCain hurried north to join in the search for survivors as part of Operation Tomodachi, working from March to May, though it was evident early on that no one could have survived for long in the frigid water.
Rescue helicopters operating in the area used the McCain as a “lily pad” to refuel, Ward said, and Ward piloted as a coxswain a seven-meter rib to look for survivors, teaming with a search and rescue diver.
“We searched boats, cars, houses, metal containers and anything else that was floating,” Ward said. “We would mark something with spray paint if nobody was on board so it wouldn’t be searched again.
“There was a massive amount of stuff, and it was snowing like crazy. It was really cold. There was debris everywhere. We couldn’t move very fast. There were a lot of boats that washed out to sea. There were the tops of houses, buses – a lot of stuff.”
One of the things U.S. Navy ships hadn’t anticipated was the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which exposed the ships and sailors to radiation. As a precaution, the ship and sailors were tested for radiation, but no serious exposure was found, Ward said.
The McCain followed a grid search pattern, but the ship’s area was further out to sea than other search grids, so the ship found no survivors, not even any people at all, in the cold water, Ward said. Still, the search made an impression on the young sailor.
“I was really happy to help them out,” Ward said of the Japanese people. “The country was in a panic. I think Japan appreciated America a lot more after that. They had been protesting our nuclear vessels, but after that when we would walk around town people would say hello and smile at me. It was a good experience to bring the United States and Japan closer together.”
After Operation Tomodachi wrapped up, the USS McCain worked a joint operation with Japan and South Korea, then this fall participated in Operation Keen Sword, allied with the Japanese Navy in an exercise with other American ships to train for ballistic missile defense, analyzing and tracking missiles and tracking submarines in defense of Japan.
Ward recently received two Navy-Marine Corps commendation medals – one for operations in January and February of 2012 and the other for work he performed getting the McCain ready for a detailed inspection that takes place every five years, a process that required him to work 14-hour days for six days a week.
He also recently received the Junior Sailor of the Quarter award for October-December for the McCain.
After six years at sea (the normal time period is five years, he said), Ward, now an E5 Boatswain’s Mate Second Class, is in the process of transferring to Jacksonville, Fla., for three years of shore duty, where he will work in the personnel transfer unit and corrections facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
That transfer allowed him to come home to visit family for Christmas. He arrived Dec. 12 and will be home until heading to Florida on Jan. 10. He has been enjoying spending time with his family, who spent Christmas at sister Calli Alvarado’s home in Douglas.
Helping in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake may have been an adventure for Ward and his fellow sailors aboard the USS John S. McCain, but their service surely illustrated the Navy’s unofficial motto: Honor, Courage, Commitment.
By David Peck