The USS Harry E. Yarnell (DLG-17) had been cruising off the coast of Algeria for many days. Jokes were circulating that the next issue of nautical charts for the region would include the ship. All alone she steamed slowly back and forth in a small square assigned to her by the commander of the Sixth Fleet, and many in the Yarnell's crew complained about the monotony.
But under the blue lights in the ship's combat information center, serious business was under way. Air traffic controllers were guiding a continuous stream of aircraft across the Mediterranean skies, while operations specialists peered into cathode ray tubes, watching for airborne intruders and scanning the nearby Algerian coast for hostile activity. A yellow teletype message attached to a clipboard at the CIC watch officer's station read: "Strong Indications That Some Arab Nations May Retaliate Against Sixth Fleet Units. . . . "
The Yarnell was a small but important part of a larger operation dubbed Nickel Grass, in which a huge American airlift was carrying much-needed tanks, ammunition, and other vital supplies across the Atlantic and down a narrow corridor from Gibraltar to Israel. Sixth Fleet ships were strung out at 300-mile intervals across the Mediterranean. They provided missile protection to these U.S. aircraft as they helped the Israelis survive a Soviet-supplied Arab onslaught in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
As the telltale aroma of chicken-fried steak signaled the coming of the noon meal, electronic warfare technicians in their tiny cubicle off CIC suddenly detected an ominous emission: the acquisitions radar of a Soviet-made Bison bomber. Seconds later a blip on the air-search radar screens confirmed an aircraft climbing into the sky from Algeria—and headed straight for the Yarnell.
The ship's crew raced to battle stations as the Bison locked on the ship with its fire-control radar. Despite the shooting war raging to the east, the rules of engagement here dictated that the Americans must wait for the enemy to shoot first. Nonetheless, missiles slid onto the rails and trained about to point fiercely at the oncoming aircraft, while a sweaty hand gripped the firing key in CIC. Lieutenant Tom Joshua, fresh back from an in-country tour in Vietnam, later recalled that he was more frightened at this moment than he had been in the Mekong Delta: "In Vietnam, I was only concerned about my own life . . . this was potentially World War III and threatened my wife and kids!"
The aircraft came in low, never relinquishing its electronic grip on the vulnerable but potentially lethal ship. But the Bison passed overhead and turned back for Algeria, the lieutenant remembered a collective exhale as all hands began to breathe again.
That confrontation would be remembered by no one save the participants, but it was a dress rehearsal for bigger events to come. A short time later, when the Israelis began to turn the tide and the Soviets threatened intervention, U.S. forces worldwide went to DEFCON 3. Just as the men of a lonely guided-missile frigate had held their breaths waiting (hoping) for sanity to prevail, so the world anxiously waited as the two superpowers stood toe-to-toe. Fortunately, like the Bison that returned with its weapons still on board, so the Soviets backed down. Yom Kippur remained a regional rather than a world war.
For the remainder of the Yarnell's Mediterranean deployment, no one complained of monotony.