Crossing the Gulf into Adulthood
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Crossing the Gulf into Adulthood
Whenever American sailors sail into the Persian Gulf, they always end up here. It is 1987 in the only American bar in this tiny country of Bahrain. It's just like any other bar; watered-down drinks are being served, music is playing, and multiple conversations are happening. There's a pool table in the middle of the bar and that's where you'll find me. I like playing pool and meeting new friends. Today, my new friends are from our sister ship. Over a game and drinks we start comparing our ships.
Shipboard life in a war zone is not a relaxing experience. My ship is always in Condition 3, known as wartime steaming. That means that we are standing eight-hour watches with 16 hours off duty and then back on eight hours. Over and over we stand our watches, and to add insult to misery, all of the big hatches are down, leaving only the small, two-foot diameter scuttles open. On a Navy ship, you have big hatches that allow you to walk up and down the stairs like you would in any building. You also have little scuttles that are shown in any submarine movie ever produced. The little scuttles make it very difficult to go from one level of the ship to another. I know that this is so we can be better prepared in case of an attack, but it's still a hassle.
Well, you can imagine my surprise when these guys, back at the bar, tell me that they aren't doing all this. They're in Condition 4, which is peacetime steaming, none of the long shifts or extra watches that come with Condition 3. They don't have to squeeze through the small hole of a scuttle or expend all of the extra energy that goes into preparing for an attack that will almost never happen. Oh well, I am not on "USS Their Ship;" I am on "USS My Ship" and we're ready. Besides, all of my drinks are free tonight, thanks to their bad pool playing.
Two weeks pass and I find myself on the 1600-2400 hour watch. That's 4 p.m. until midnight for civilians. I'm manning the air search radar, and my job is to find anything that looks like an airplane. While searching, I'm listening to my lookouts with one ear and monitoring a radio channel with the other. Around 2030 hours (8:30 p.m.) local time, the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) airplane reports an inbound aircraft approaching one of our ships. They continue to report the position of this inbound aircraft every few minutes. The ships in the area send out air warnings to the offending plane. The warnings tell the plane to change course. The AWACS then make a frightening report. They say, "Inbound aircraft, Iraqi F-1, flying an attack ship formation. CPA (closest point of approach) to the Stark, 10 miles." Even though we are friends with Iraq, no aircraft flying an attack ship formation would or should ever get that close to an American ship.
Then I hear that the U.S.S. Stark has been hit! What is going on? We're not at war with Iraq; Iran is. It's their war, and we're just here to protect our interest in the region. Listening to the drama unfold many miles away from us, I'm scared to death. I'm afraid for them and afraid for us.
Talk about stressed! First of all, I have my own duties to perform to protect the lives of everyone aboard my ship. Normally, I talk to my lookouts and try to keep the mood light, but not now. I tell all of my lookouts basically what has happened because they can't hear the reports that I'm privy to. They don't need to hear all the details right now, and I'm still piecing it together. Then, I tell them I expect total professionalism on the radio circuit, and that I will need confirmation of any and all possible contacts. We do not need any enemy forces sneaking up on us. Of course they don't need me to tell them this, but I feel like I'm assuring them that we won't suffer the same fate as our sister ship. While I'm conducting my duties, the captain receives permission to rendezvous with the Stark. We're told to proceed at max operational speed. I cannot divulge what speed that is, but I can say that I have never gone that fast on a naval vessel before or since.
When I am finally relieved of duty, our orders are to go to sleep. The captain says we don't know what lies ahead of us, and we need all the rest we can get. I lie down in my bunk thinking about life. I'm 19 and newly married. My wife is still in Canada, where I met her. I haven't had a chance to move her and her son to the base in California. Before I left, I had given her one half of a Mizpah medallion. (A Mizpah medallion is a medallion that is broken in two. You keep one half and give the other half to a loved one.) I have the other around my neck. I say my prayers and put the medal in my hand. I clutch it so tight that it hurts, but I can't stop. The pain reminds me I'm alive. I drift off to sleep, thinking of my own fragile mortality.
Something wakes me from my sleep. It's not my alarm clock; I didn't set one. I suddenly realize that I was not awakened by noise but by the lack of it. The rumbling of the ship's engines during the high-speed transit is gone. The ship is quiet, eerily quiet for a warship. I realize that my knuckles are white from the grip that I had on the Mizpah medallion all night. I get out of bed and dress quickly. We must be on the scene.
I run as quickly as I can up two flights of stairs to the main deck of the ship. I step outside and stop cold. The sky is blue and the sun is rising over the horizon. The ocean is as calm as a swimming pool. Under other circumstances, it would be a beautiful day. But today is not a beautiful day, because of the site before me. It is an eerily familiar ship in an unfamiliar circumstance. It is big and gray with the number 31 on the bow. It looks completely normalexcept for the smoke rising from it and the way it is twisted in the middle. The port, or left, side of the ship is tilted toward the water. All I can think about is the loss of life and the possibility of the USS Stark sinking beneath this beautiful ocean.
There's no way that we are going to let our sister ship slide under the waves. We're going to do everything that we can to save her. There are already two other ships assisting her but they are not the USS Reid. The other ships could have saved the Stark by themselves but the Reid is the same class of ship as the Stark, and we have practiced for this very scenario aboard our own vessel many times. We know the routine. We know that ship like the back of our hands. We send in our best firefighting teams and engineering teams to relieve the other crew. The first things that need to be done are to get the fires under control and dewater the ship. Dewatering is a process that gets the firefighting water out of the ship. The ship is listing heavily to port (the left side of the ship) and we've got to keep it from getting worse.
I volunteer to fight the fires, but since I'm newly married they tell me they'll let me know if they need me. I just want to do something, anything, to help instead of standing around watching and waiting. Many sailors lend their assistance to the rescue efforts, and none come back the same. The big burly guys, and the even bigger talkers went into the fires bravely but they came back changed forever. I can see it in their faces. They don't want to reveal the things that they saw over there. They had to call back to us on the Reid to send over a cutting torch so they could cut open the hatches that were welded shut from the heat of fires on board the Stark. It was a horrendous scene that they will never forget. Many, many stories could be told about the deaths of 37 sailors, some still in their beds, and those who barely survived. The date was May 17, 1987, a day that lingers in my mind. It was a sad day in the history of the US Navy, the lives of the sailors and their families, and the news of the day's events was being spread all around the world.
Every story you read in the newspapers comes from the same sources. We could see the message traffic as reporters were filing their stories. Let me tell you this: just because you see something in black and white doesn't mean that it's true. The reports we were hearing scared us and we were there. All of a sudden I thought of my wife. What was she hearing? What was she being told? I could not get word to her. We were not allowed to communicate with anyone back home.
For three days, we were not allowed to transmit any telegrams. I later learned that during the communication blackout, my mother-in-law saw the report on television and called my wife, who quickly turned on the news. The only thing my wife saw was a ship that looked like mine with a big number "3" on the side. The second digit of the ship's number was covered with smoke. My ship's number was 30 and the Stark was number 31. The news reports said, "A US Navy Frigate in the Persian Gulf," but they never stated the name of the ship that was hit. She was in a panic. Finally, on the fourth day, I managed to send a brief message, "Honey, I am ok."
My wife received a phone call from Mayport, Florida, passing on my telegraph message. The lady who received my message had a son-in-law who was onboard the Stark. She called my wife from home to personally give her my message. She said that it would be nice to hear from her son-in-law, but there was no word from him yet. When we finally reached port, I called my wife and talked to her for three hours. It was the best $300 phone call that I had ever made!
Weeks after the attack, I heard a story about the guy who was the Stark's forward lookout during the attack. He said that he saw a flash in the sky and reported it to the Officer of the Deck (OOD). The OOD said that it was probably a flare. Suddenly, the deck of the ship rocked. Sirens went off and people were screaming. Then he saw another flash. He dutifully reported it to the OOD. The OOD's reply to the forward lookout of "Jump!" was probably the last word that that officer ever spoke. The lookout was stationed on the O3 level, 3 levels above the main deck. The water about 30 feet below him looked like it offered a much better chance of survival than where he stood, so he jumped. Several hours later, a Navy destroyer on its way to help the now stricken USS Stark fished him out of the gulf.
My experience with the deaths of fellow sailors onboard the USS Stark changed my perspective on my own mortality. As a sailor from the USS Reid wrote in a poem, "Little did we know, but accustomed we'd grown to the price that we were willing to pay." I could never explain to you how I felt that day. It was an overwhelming sense of fear, hatred and hopelessness. I hope that reading this real life experience will allow you to appreciate all of our men and women in the Armed Services.