The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) moved effortlessly across the black surface of the Arabian Sea, displacing nearly 100,000 tons as she cut through the dark waters. Her great bulk disturbed millions of tiny bioluminescent sea creatures, causing them to glow and leave an eerie green swath of light to mark her passage. A more sophisticated enemy with satellites or reconnaissance aircraft might have used that glowing wake to locate and attack the ship, but her enemy was not the Soviet Union or the Empire of Japan. This latest enemy had no great fleet to oppose her, nor a powerful air force to challenge her mastery of the skies. Yet an insidious new threat had emerged from the back alleys of the Middle East and the foreboding mountains of Central Asia to strike at the very heart of American power.
On the ship’s flight deck, sailors prepared to strike back. As a 500-pound bomb rolled off an ordnance elevator, a young airman chalked across the side of the weapon, “Hijack this . . . .” Another wrote the letters “NYPD” and “FDNY” on a Mark 83 bomb in tribute to the courage of other uniformed police and firefighters who had raced into the stricken World Trade Center towers in New York City, ignoring the great danger that would soon take their lives.
The date was 7 October 2001, and the Enterprise was about to launch air strikes into Afghanistan, a dark corner of the world with a tragic history recently made worse by an oppressive regime known as the Taliban. Not only had these fanatics done much to hurt the image of Islam, but they had also provided sanctuary for the perpetrators of what had come to be known, simply, as “9/11.”
As the hour approached for the commencement of air strikes, off-duty sailors joined the reporters who lined the railing of the observation area known as “Vulture’s Row.” Some of these sailors had come out merely to get some air, but many others had come because it somehow felt like the right thing to do, as though their collective presence might breathe an extra measure of vitality into the coming launch, might somehow help lift those lethal machines into the air, and might speed them on their way to seek vengeance for a terrible wrong. More than one reporter noted that the faces of these sailors were set with grim determination as they watched aircraft taxi up to the catapults amidst the deafening whine of powerful jet engines and the pungent odor of JP5 fuel thick in the night air.
There was no wild cheering, no high fives, as the first aircraft rocketed down the catapult track and roared into the black sky. Instead, there was an almost palpable sense of relief, as the observers felt the dissipation of the feeling of helplessness that had gripped them since they first stared horrified at television screens, watching airliners full of innocent people forced to crash into buildings full of more innocent people. Unlike the vast majority of Americans who could do little more than seethe or grieve, the men and women of the Enterprise were striking back. And as many would attest, it felt very good indeed.
Hours after their launch, the Big E’s brood returned safely to the nest, having rained death, destruction, and retribution on a merciless enemy. Again, there were no overt celebrations—simply a strong sense of accomplishment and a realization that this was just the beginning. As the crews from this first sortie were headed for a belated breakfast and much-needed rest, other sorties were shuttling to and from enemy targets, keeping the pressure on. It was going to be a long war.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and The Battle of Leyte Gulf.