"This ain't the real Navy," said the boatswain's mate in the Baltic Sea, whose frigate seemed always, always, on the move.
Sailors have played this game, probably, since America's nascent fleet added a six-pack of shiny frigates to its motley colonial vessels. Every class of ship, every kind of duty, has its unique mission and quirks to set it apart from the rest of the fleet.
Carriers? "Bird farms," if you ask the surface warriors. Cruisers? Floating computers, what with Aegis and all. Subs? Designed to sink. Minesweepers, oilers, tenders? Hardly CNN-worthy.
Don't even ask about shore duty.
So what and where is the "real Navy?" Attempts to triangulate are foolish, or at least futile. And yet it was in that pursuit, more or less, that Navy Times sent me on an extraordinary assignment: go around the world with the fleet.
Over a span of three months in mid-1998, a photographer and I flew more than 59,000 miles and sailed another 3,600 or so, visited some two dozen ships and a score of bases and places. Our itinerary traced a pile of spaghetti on the European map and drew a wobbly line westward and then around the globe. From the frigid airstrips of Iceland to the volcanic tip of South America, from Japan to the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, we watched U.S. sailors train for and perform a mind-boggling array of missions: air strikes, covert operations, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and showing the flag in innumerable ways.
The Year of E-Mail
Aviation Electronics Technician Third Class Michael Eccles burst into the television studio of the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), waving a pair of floppy disks. "My wife had our baby, and I got her picture on e-mail," the dungaree-clad sailor exclaimed with excitement.
Electronic mail has transformed the workplace of many a landlubber, but it is transforming many sailors' lives too. To many in the fleet, 1998 was "The Year of E-mail." In dozens of ways, messages that arrived in hours, not weeks, helped close the gap between sailors and loved ones. Most of the fleet's aircraft carriers were equipped with the capacity for instantaneous e-mail in 1998. Sailors on smaller ships, which were less-endowed with communication links, nevertheless usually managed to send and receive every few hours. Captains and crews alike touted e-mail as the biggest single quality-of-life improvement they had seen in years.
As with the rest of the fleet's carriers, the Dwight D. Eisenhower got wired just before deploying with an onboard computer network and e-mail capability. Unfortunately, Eccles's own workstation was not set up to handle pictures, so the technician came running into the studio after he got off work around 0300.
Anxiously, Eccles waited as Journalist Third Class Stacy Clark shoved a disk in his computer and pulled the image up on the screen. There she was, all 8 pounds and 20 inches of chubby, pink, naked Morgan Brook Eccles, born to Jessica Eccles on 28 June in Houston, Texas. Being 6,000 miles away on a ship in the Adriatic Sea when your first child is born is no fun, but the digital picture eased the new father's pain. "Wow," Eccles said, nearly speechless with joy and wonder and pride.
Still, there's nothing like an honest-to-goodness letter. "You go three weeks without mail, you feel forgotten. You don't feel part of the universe anymore," said Photographer's Mate Third Class Tim Altevogt, who served on board the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).
Temperatures still topped 110° as another brutal August day of flight operations ended on board the Abraham Lincoln . The flight deck crew was wrapping up, descending into the air-conditioned hull, peeling off sweat soaked layers of safety equipment. In eight hours, Catapult Crew Number Three had reprised the deadly dance of launch-and-recover more than 100 times.
Many of them spent much of the night taking care of their equipment, then rose, bleary-eyed, to risk their lives on too-little sleep. It was not the ideal situation, but Aviation Boatswain's Mate Third Class Todd Gray and his teammates had little choice. Like almost every division on board, Cat Three was short-handed. During the previous deployment, the Abraham Lincoln had embarked 44 green shirts to man the catapult. In summer 1998, Gray's team numbered 25.
It took 13 ABEs—launch-and-recovery specialists—to launch an aircraft, not counting the ones standing watches, keeping logs, and turning wrenches below. Over the long summer, Gray's teammates were on deck for almost every flight. "We're stretched to the limit right now," he said. Cat Three was hardly unique. Their mighty warship was missing a sailor for one out of every seven jobs.
"We left port with 400 fewer than we did in 1995," acknowledged Master Chief Electrician's Mate (AW/SW/SS) Gary Weir, the ship's command master chief. Indeed, the Abraham Lincoln had lifted sailors from other ships in order to make the cruise.
The Abraham Lincoln was not alone. As the George Washington (CVN-73) and the Nimitz (CVN-68) prepared for war with Iraq in January, neither had anywhere near the Navy's recommended manning levels. The George Washington was supposed to have a crew of 5,680. Actually, 1,000 fewer were on board. A month later, the USS Independence (CV-62) dashed into the area with a crew of 4,200. She had snatched 75 specialists from other ships in order to meet combat-readiness standards.
The shortages were hardly limited to the Navy's marquee warships. By year's end, the fleet was missing a sailor for roughly 1 of every 15 jobs. More than three-quarters of the jobs were shipboard billets, which meant that most of the fleet was putting to sea with less-than-ideal manning levels.
Everywhere, too few sailors were doing too many jobs. On many ships, this had produced trickle-up of labor. Petty officers who thought they had advanced beyond menial tasks found themselves refilling ketchup bottles or chipping paint. This was not a morale booster.
"Here's what really hurts: it's not unusual to have a third class petty officer filling slots on the mess deck and that's become the rule rather than the exception," said Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SW/AW) Bernard L. Heffernan Jr., the Dwight D. Eisenhower's command master chief. "I like to have a huge wall between [seaman] and [petty officer]. If there's no difference, it's hard to convince them to stay in the Navy."
Fleetwide, one of every three slots went unfilled for junior ship's serviceman—the rating that gives haircuts, does laundry, runs the ship's store, and more. One ubiquitous sign in the fleet of summer 1998: the "Barbers Wanted" missives that begged shipmates to come in and learn to cut hair.
Yet the peculiarities of the decade-long drawdown made it hard to move up in some ratings. For some sailors, the advancement exam had become a dreary biannual ritual. "You keep finding ways to recognize them and keep picking them up and dusting them off and helping them to move on after the disappointment of not advancing," said a senior chief on board the guided-missile cruiser Shiloh (CG-67).
Difficulties in getting repair parts—especially between deployments—heaped insult on injury. "Not only is there not any time for family; not only are they not able to get advanced; on top of that, you're not letting them do the job they're trained to do. They're going to vote with their feet," said Master Chief Machinist's Mate (SW) Mark Butler, command master chief on board the guided-missile frigate Halyburton (FFG-40). And that was too bad, said Butler, because it was quite clear why young people stay in or get out. "The thing about the Navy is reaching your potential. Those who can't reach their potential are dissatisfied. Those who can are tremendously satisfied."
The frequent confrontations with Iraq engendered yet another complaint in 1998: really lousy liberty stops. "What they want is port visits. What the troops want is to be sailors," said one cruiser skipper. "You give a sailor Cartagena, Colombia, and that goes a long way. Every sailor hopes for Australia. In the Persian Gulf, it's rough, because there's only sand."
But when everything goes right, a sailor's sacrifice is an investment returned many times. In late June, Anthony Batz was flying high, figuratively and literally. The aviation warfare systems operator, third class, was several thousand feet above the Black Sea in a P-3 Orion from VP-26. He was Sensor Two, the junior operator of the patrol plane's sonar equipment.
For a week, his 12-person crew had operated from a Romanian airfield, flying exercises with forces from many countries. On this particular mission, Batz had not even bothered to power up the monochrome screens of his sonar equipment. The pilots were teaching various Eastern European ships about the Orion's surveillance capabilities, lessons that did not require the sensor operator's particular skills. Batz wedged himself against a bulkhead and cracked a manual. He was trying to bone up for his aviation warfare qualifying exams, but his mind kept wandering back to the bus trip to Transylvania a few days before.
"I saw Dracula's castle," the 25-year-old petty officer said. "It blew my mind. I can't believe this used to be a communist country."
Two years before, the Lebanon, Pennsylvania, native was working 50 hours a week in a convenience store. The pay was lousy. His life was lousier. "I was living at home at age 23. I needed a new direction," he said.
A recruiter's pitch, dimly remembered from high school days, steered him toward the Navy. At boot camp, the instructors handed Batz his first taste of responsibility: simple things, positions of authority in his company of recruits. Batz was startled, and then surprised, to find himself bearing well under its weight. "Someone saw something inside of me that I didn't," he said in wonderment.
In fact, the Navy saw the potential for a highly skilled air warfare specialist. After boot camp turned Batz into a sailor, the service invested thousands more dollars training him to hunt submarines. It was a perfect match. As Batz learned to recognized the sonic patterns that would enable him to find a quiet boat in noisy seas, something clicked. In a year-long stab at college, Batz had studied criminal justice. His favorite part was fingerprinting.
"No submarine looks the same as any other, even in the same classes," he explained, as the P-3's engines droned outside. "They have similarities, but each one's different, like a fingerprint."
When he arrived at VP-26, fresh from school, he found that prying submarines from their watery hiding places was even more fun than he had expected. "It really gets my heart pumping," he said.
The surveillance flights over Bosnia, keeping a protective eye on things for the ground troops below, were even better. "That job brought it home to me. This is the real world. I'm helping people. I'm doing the right thing," he said. "It was the warm fuzzy that everyone needs."
Batz's first deployment was coming to an end. In a month, the squadron headed home to Maine. He returned not quite the same person who left. "I'm learning to rely on myself far more than I ever thought I could," he said. "Younger guys are leaning on me for support."
And he has goals now. He is going after his air warfare pin. Then he will look to move up in his rating. Above all, he is determined to finish his college education. "I promised myself I wouldn't get out of the Navy without a bachelor's degree. Whether that takes 5 years or 20."
The Navy is no free ride. But for Batz, the trip is well worth the fare. "You work hard, you get recognized, and you get what you want," he said. "Right now, I'm loving it. I couldn't have asked for better."
Even in the age of technology, nothing—nothing—matters more than good leadership. The skipper, or commander, or officer-in-charge affects the entire unit more than anything else within or without. As the ever-more technical Navy moves into the 21st century, John Paul Jones's example remains a trusty beacon.
"Sailors aren't worried about how many days off they get if you show them you care for them," said Commander Mike Zieser, skipper of the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Houston (SSN-713).
Captain James Moseman echoed the thought. "The most powerful thing a commander can do to boost retention is one simple thing: you have to ask the sailor what he wants to do," said the skipper of the guided-missile cruiser Princeton (CG-59). "Then say, 'I'll show you your future, and it looks pretty good."'
An aviation machinist's mate second class from the Dwight D. Eisenhower put it another way. "Morale goes up because someone gives a damn," he said.
The Cold War's end shrank the number of the Navy's overseas bases drastically, but sailors who stick around for a few enlistments likely will do a tour or two on foreign soil. The Japan-based Seventh Fleet alone is home to 1 in 20 Navy sailors. Most of its ships are homeported at the giant Fleet Activities Yokosuka—home to 13,000 sailors, civilians, and dependents.
Most of the Navy's foreign posts are not so large. It would be hard to get much smaller, for example, than the desert outpost of Fleet Logistic Site Hurghada, Egypt. One officer and one sailor work there, coordinating the supply of U.S. warships sailing through the Red Sea.
Each of these far-flung islands of Americana brews its own mix of cultures and tradition. The ethos that evolve are predominantly American, to be sure. Hamburger joints and brand-name fast-food restaurants far outnumber attempts to import local fare onto U.S. bases. And quite a few sailors and families never venture out of the military ghetto. But the surrounding cultures inevitably work their way past the gates, insinuating themselves into the lives of those who dwell within. Sometimes they get no deeper than an imprint upon the household furnishings: a Japanese print, a piece of Sicilian pottery. Sometimes, the strange cultures leave much deeper marks on the soul. Those who voyage to faraway lands often find love—a new spouse, an affinity for a foreign country, a renewed passion for their native land.
And always, new mores and behaviors are there to be learned—and unlearned. Culture shock, it turns out, works both ways. Sailors who serve in Iceland or Japan learn to relax in these virtually crime-free societies, but upon returning home they face the sad task of teaching their children to be more wary. Their "new home" is more dangerous than the foreign place they departed.
Doing It All
Out on the narrow starboard deck of the guided-missile frigate Kauffman (FFG-59), Sonar Technician Second Class (SW) Joe Stump belted himself into one of the frigate's 25-mm Bushmaster deck cannon. Firing such weapons was not in the sonar tech job description, but Stump had volunteered for gunnery school and had returned fully qualified for the job.
His target—a red inflatable ball the size of a Volkswagen Beetle—floated a mile to starboard. Crews call it the "killer tomato." Stump waited as the line of ships passed by, firing all manner of small-bore weapons at the ball. It was still floating when the Kauffman pulled abreast.
An automatic weapon akin to an eight-foot machine gun, the Bushmaster rests on an electrically powered mount. The gunner swings the barrel into position with switches that control elevation and rotation. This does not make shooting easy, for the tracer rounds do not fly laser-straight. Over a 2,500-yard range, their vague spirals can add up to a lot of slop.
The sonar tech sighted down the barrel. Squeezing the trigger, he unleashed an ear-splitting series of four-shell salvos—pow-pow-pow-pow, pow-pow-pow-pow. Geysers erupted around the distant target. But with corrections after each burst, Stump soon began putting the one-pound shells on target. The tomato began to deflate.
Commander George J. Karol III, a well-built man the crew was wont to call "Gorgeous George," nodded his approval with a single tight movement of his jaw. An exacting commander, the Kauffman's skipper has sharp words for sailors whose performance he deems lacking. But polished brass junction boxes gleamed in the passageways, and the ship's spaces were spotless—bellwethers of the crew's pride in their ship.
Command at sea is one of the loneliest of jobs, and 1998 put a lot of pressure on Karol. He commanded his warship in a year of manning shortages. Predeployment inspections seemed endless. The exigencies of world politics yanked his ship around on a two-week chain. But the skipper was as relaxed in his stateroom as he was stern on the bridge. He ticked off a long list of rewards accorded the skipper of what he called "the Navy's finest ship."
"The fun part is seeing young men come from the Midwest without any education, and then signing, as I did this morning, four diplomas for having completed a college course at sea," Karol said. "It's seeing a young man up to his ass in dirt because I gave him the parts to fix his diesel. It's standing up on the bridge, tossing a smoke flare overboard, yelling at the top of your lungs, `man overboard, starboard side,' and the guy in the combat information center, who doesn't know anything except that there's a man overboard, calls in the helo from five miles away, and it flares out over the smoke and there's a guy in the door ready to jump in the water."
And despite Karol's obvious satisfaction with his crew's military prowess, he takes pleasure in their human gestures as well. "The fun part is seeing the guys engaging with people less fortunate than they are," Karol said.
Just a few days previously, a few dozen Kauffman sailors and airmen devoted a sunny liberty morning at an orphanage in the shabby port of Constanta, Romania. Home to some 50 HIV-positive children, the Casa Speranta orphanage consisted of one khaki-colored concrete building, and playground, and a small grassy yard. The sailors brought paint, brushes, and a will to work. In a few short hours, they had Casa Speranta as shipshape as their frigate. "If for whatever reason my kids wound up in someplace like this, I'd want people to spend time with them," said Aviation Electronics Technician First Class (AW) Ken Deaton, a father of two.
Several miles off the crushed-shell beaches of Romania's Black Sea shores, Chief Gunner's Mate Bob Cottone leaned from the Kauffman's bridge wing to watch his sailors unlimber the Bushmaster. The gunner's ears were plugged with yellow foam cylinders. He was grinning.
Ahead and astern of the guided-missile frigate, a multinational flotilla—including several vessels of former Warsaw Pact nations—was preparing to take potshots at a inflatable target floating 1,000 yards away.
"This is where it's at," Cottone declared. "This is the real Navy."
Mr. Peniston is a staff writer for Navy Times . A book based on his travels, Around the World with the Navy , will be published later this year by the Naval Institute Press.