to the flight deck, expecting a blast of rain and gale force winds, and . . . it's gorgeous outside. Barely a wisp of cloud in the sky, relatively calm winds, and glorious sunshine. Yet the ocean is convulsed with swells that are knocking us around like a toy in a bath-tub. I'm sure there's some salty dog on board who understands this phenomenon; in the meantime, I'm waiting for a rogue wave to come out of the clear blue sky and turn us into a submarine. Anyway, I got on with my flight deck PT, which was like performing in my own episode of American Gladiator: today's challenge, run back and forth along a narrow steel strip that's pitching and rolling hither and yon without getting taken out by the dozens of aircraft chains, tugs, fuel drums, and other runners around you. The penalty for losing this event: falling off the flight deck and getting eaten by sharks. Go!
I have been quite delinquent in keeping everyone abreast of things out here on the pointy (rusty, salty, wet) tip of the spear, for which I apologize. But, no kidding, I've been busy, so BACK OFF! As I can't actually access my blog page I'm not sure where I left off, but I think it was before we embarked aboard the Essex. So that's where the story will pick up. Our embark date was a couple of days after my birthday, by which time I'd recovered from my birthday festivities down at Kadena, had caught up on sleep, and finally packed. The big day had been rolled back a couple of times due to back-to-back tropical storms coming through, but, finally, the Essex Amphibious Readiness Group steamed into port down at White Beach and it was time to get on our buses and go. Several of us had taken the Mars Rover down the day before to drop off the bulk of our gear and make the whole embark process less painful, so today all we had to do was get our weapons on board and then figure out where everything was on our new floating home.
The scene that day was like something out of a World War II movie, with thousands of troops climbing ladders, driving forklifts, operating cranes, and rushing through passageways as our mini-fleet got ready for its cruise. We climbed the gangway up to one of the aircraft elevators, and in fine naval tradition, stopped at the top to salute the ship's ensign before asking permission to come on board from the officer of the day. I was curious as to what we were supposed to do if he said no, but he let us on board and dreams of a shortened deployment quickly vanished from my mind. We were led to our staterooms by one of the other FACs who'd done a MEU deployment before and generally knew how the ship was arranged (a skill we came to rely on during our first few days underway). Unpacking didn't take long since you're not afforded the baggage train one could get away with in Iraq, and we then turned to finding the important spaces on ship, like the gym and, more important, the wardroom for chow. Fortunately pretty much every place we need to go to is located on the same deck as our berthing spaces, it's just a matter of remembering how many hatches and twists and turns you need to take to get there. The gym is at the bow, followed by our rooms, and then the wardroom is just a little further toward the stern. Everything beyond the wardroom is the business area of the ship, where ourselves, the composite squadron, the combat logistics battalion, and the Navy all fight over which noisy, overcrowded little janitor closet is ours. Most things below this deck are still a mystery to me; the enlisted Marines' berthing spaces are directly below us, and the hangar deck is one more flight down. Then below THAT are still more decks where we store all our rolling stocks, a flotilla of LCUs (Landing Craft Utility), and other random things like the engines. There's no need for me to go below the hangar deck for which I'm thankful, since I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to find my way back up.
Life on the ship has not turned into the nightmarish existence I'd been led to believe from others who have done the MEU things before. There's not always a set schedule, for us at least, since we've spent most of the last few weeks afloat doing some training exercise or another. But there are a few noteworthy things that are part of a typical day:
-it's entirely possible to spend a whole day on the ship without seeing the sun. This is how I spent my first few days and it slowly drove me crazy. I'd get the same way on the night shift in Iraq; eventually your brain rejects its nocturnal programming and demands daylight. Fortunately, that same FAC pointed out a catwalk that runs the length of the ship on the starboard side, takes you directly to our workspaces without having to go through twenty different hatches (all of which you need to lock behind you), and has the added bonus of allowing you to see the sky for a few minutes each time you transit it. This makes all the difference in the world. You also get a good look at the ocean, which out here looks absolutely gorgeous. It's hard to resist the temptation to leap over the railing and go swimming. The water is a deep, vibrant blue and relatively warm even out in the middle of nowhere. I'm hoping at some point the ship's captain decides to drop the anchor and let everyone go splash off the well-deck.
-the Navy likes to announce everything that's going on over the loudspeaker. These announcements are always preceded by a piercing whistle blast of varying duration and intensity. After a few weeks underway, I've come to the conclusion that the less important the announcement, the longer and more annoying the whistle blast that precedes it. For example, when the ship commences flight operations, you get a five-second whistle, which hardly seems commensurate to the danger of a small airfield going active above your head. Ordering the sweepers to man their brooms, however, gets a three-note whistle that lasts about a minute and will probably have the cumulative effect of further degrading my hearing. I have sworn that someday I'm going to find the guy who blows that whistle and throw him and his infernal instrument overboard.
-doing one's morning run on the flight deck of a warship, surrounded by warplanes, with the ocean stretching from horizon to horizon and occasionally dotted by the sister ships of the ARG, is a new degree of awesomeness.
-living under the flight deck during flight operations, however, I think is akin to living on the fifth or sixth circle of hell. It's not the worst torment one could endure, but that doesn't make it fun. The Essex is home to the equivalent of several squadrons of aircraft, all of whom take off and land for ten hours a day right above our heads. The helicopters aren't so bad; usually they're just a dull vibration in the background unless they're taking off or landing right over you. The Harriers, however . . . you know the fly-bys jets do at air shows, where they come in a couple hundred feet above the bleachers and deafen the crowd? Imagine that same fly-by taking place about ten feet above your head with only a little steel plating between you and the aircraft, and you'll have some notion of what a Harrier taking off sounds like. The most trying noise, though, is the incessant dragging of chains back and forth across the flight deck. All aircraft are chained down until immediately prior to take-off and then immediately after landing, to avoid minor incidents like aircraft sliding over the side. With ten straight hours of flight ops, these chains come on and off hundreds of times, and usually become loudest and most frequent just when you're trying to go to sleep.
-general quarters' drills are also awesome. General quarters, to you landlubbers, means battle stations. Sailors start running to their appointed battle station, covers come off the ship's defensive weapons, anti-ship missile launchers are warmed up, and for the next three hours the Navy rehearses defending the ship. Throughout all this, the Marines' appointed battle station is: our rooms. That's three hours of guaranteed down time. I am of the opinion that, for the sake of the ship's combat readiness, general quarters should be practiced more often.
Well the hour is getting late (late morning, anyway), and it's about time for brunch, so I'll halt here and regale you all with my war stories from CERTEX in the next post.