Five Brave Men
It was Thursday, 12 October 2000—the day before the Navy’s 224th birthday—when a small boat approached the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden Harbor. Waving to the crew on the main deck of the destroyer, the fanatics in the boat steered into the ship’s port side, amidships. Powerful explosives detonated with great force, tearing a 40- by-40-foot hole in the destroyer’s side, smashing in bulkheads and tearing deck plating as though it were made of paper. Smoke filled her passageways, water poured into many of her spaces, and dozens of the Cole’s crew were killed or injured in the blast.
As images of the gaping hole in the Cole’s side flashed around the world, most who saw it were shocked, although some of America’s enemies certainly rejoiced. But few understood that this ship was in danger of being lost. Images of a damaged naval vessel were bad enough, but a sunken ship would have been far worse, encouraging America’s enemies all the more and possibly shaking the faith of some who looked to the United States for strength and encouragement.
So it was that, among the many acts of courage displayed in that harrowing time, five brave petty officers would not only face their own mortality but would have the fate of their ship and their nation’s image in their hands.
The Cole had suffered a great deal of flooding and had little reserve buoyancy left when it was realized that she was taking on more water in her number two main engine space than could be evicted. The distance from the engine room up to the main deck and then over the side was too great for the portable pumps. The situation was becoming desperate. The water was winning, and time was running out.
And then, a desperate plan was put into effect. Recognizing that the only way the pumps could work would be to shorten the distance the water had to travel, someone suggested cutting a hole in the side of the ship, just above the waterline, through which a discharge hose could be passed, thus shortening the distance the water would have to be lifted. It was a good plan except for one frightening fact. So much fuel had been spilled in the catastrophe that there was great concern that sparks from a cutting torch might ignite it. The crew might be jumping from the proverbial frying pan into a very real fire.
Despite the frightening possibilities, the five Sailors descended into Main Number Two. They waded through chest-deep, fuel-coated water and tangled debris until one could climb up the listing bulkhead and, bracing himself against an angle iron, light the cutting torch. There were some tense moments as sparks danced about like fireflies on a summer night and cascaded into the volatile liquid below.
But their luck held. No fire started, and soon they had cut a four-inch hole into the hull. Before long, water was being discharged out of Main Number Two and back into Aden Harbor, from whence it came.
The Cole remained afloat and after an extended yard period returned to the Fleet. By then, the whole nation—wakened by the attacks on 9/11—knew what the Cole’s Sailors already understood: the nation was at war. If the Cole’s Sailors are any indicator of American will, the outcome is not in doubt.