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72 hours aboard the USS Wasp

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72 hours aboard the USS Wasp
(Photo by Ken Kraetzer)

In nine simple words, Master Chief Dennis Taylor, stationed aboard the U.S.S. Wasp, summed up his 28 years in the Navy: "It is always about the people next to you."

Taylor also noted, "I have some of the greatest friends anyone could imagine from 28 years in the military." And while I was at first impressed by the hardware of the greatest Navy in the world – the ships, aircraft, helicopters, radar, missiles and overall awesome capability – I quickly realized that, as Taylor said so well, it is about the sailors, Marines and their officers that carry out the mission of the Navy and Marine Corps in the defense of freedom around the world.

Ten years ago, Post 50 Pelham took the initiative to invite sailors and Marines from New York City Fleet Week to march in our community’s 10-decade-old Memorial Day parade. This has led to several opportunities for our members and state leadership to visit the ships participating in Fleet Week. This year I had the opportunity to visit the US Navy base in Norfolk, Va., and sail on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp as the 40,000-ton namesake of two World War II-era aircraft carriers made its way north for a visit to New York City and a week of recognition from the public.

Visiting Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world, is the chance to see the scope of the U.S. Navy. At the base on the south side of the harbor are aircraft carriers such as the USS George Bush and the USS Dwight David Eisenhower, which were berthed at the adjacent pier to the Wasp. Down the docks were Arleigh Burke-class destroyers such as the USS Gonzalez, and Ticonderoga-class cruisers that included the USS San Jacinto. Nearby was the amphibious assault ship USS San Antonio, sister ship of the famed USS New York that contains World Trade Center steel in its bow. Further down the rows of piers is a base for submarines. Interspersed were supply ships and tankers, which we learned are manned by mostly civilian crews.

Wasp is the first of its class that is designed to take 1,500 Marines to sea with the ability to land them by hovercraft, helicopter or vertical take-off planes. At first glance, it looks like a World War II-era Essex-class carrier, with a straight flight deck, aircraft elevators on either side of the flight deck near the stern, and an island superstructure containing the bridge and observation areas for the flight deck. From the forward deck level of the island is a ramp leading down to a large hanger deck where aircraft can be maintained.

Off the ramp to the hanger deck is the hatch entrance to a comprehensive medical care center area designed to care for not only the 1,000 sailors on board, but injured personnel coming off aircraft. If needed, the medical facilities can be expanded to the hanger deck to handle combat or humanitarian casualties.

On our first morning, groups of sailors in blue-grey camouflage and Marines in desert sand-colored uniforms met in formations on the hanger deck to go over plans for the day. It was easy to see the coaching and teaching going as the young sailors, and even young officers, learned from the veterans about the duties necessary to keep their ship ready for life at sea and taking the fight to the front lines. As two young sailors in dress whites passed by, all came to attention to offer a salute to the flag they carried folded in a triangle that was raised on the ship’s stern at 8 a.m.

One veteran sailor mentioned how much email had changed the way sailors are able to keep in touch with families at home, but added how much hand-written letters, cards or packages are valued. A letter, he said, can be reread many times and be taken with you during the day. There are also times email is turned off when the ship is a busy period. Cell phones are instructed to be used only in an area of the hanger deck while the ship isin port, never while the ship is moving. Opportunities are made to allow sailors to call home periodically on a ship-to-shore line.

Another obvious change is the number of women serving in almost every type of job on board, from helicopter pilots to deck hands helping to secure the lines. "I love the Navy," said Colleen Fitzgerald, a young sailor from the Philadelphia area who a year earlier re was in college before deciding she needed a change. The young lady serves as an operations specialist working on radar equipment in the "Command-In Control" nerve center of the ship. "My job is to know what is going on around us," Fitzgerald said. "I plan on going officer after my four years, I plan on putting a package (application) in, so I plan on being here a long time".

In the morning, the USS Kearsarge – a sister ship to the Wasp – came in and was carefully docked, assisted by tugs. When the Wasp left port in the afternoon, we passed by the George Bush and could see the full length of the 1,000-foot-plus ship. Carriers look much different at their home base without their aircraft aboard having been flown off after the last operation. Just one aircraft could be seen on the deck of the George Bush, which was undergoing maintenance.

As the Wasp headed out the Norfolk channel, a submarine, the USS Scranton, was arriving. An honor guard of sailors and Marines lined up on the flight deck and rendered a salute as the Los Angeles-class sub passed by, heading home from a mission.

Along with a group of "sea cadets," I watched a number of helicopters land on the ship late in the day. The cadets are high school students learning about sea service and military ways from retired Navy veterans. Eight-year veteran Jose Ramirez from Newark, N.J., enjoys the fast pace of managing activity on the flight deck. Ramirez showed us the fire-fighting equipment that is always close at hand near the aircraft, mentioning that the Navy’s training to fight fires is considered second only to that of the New York City Fire Department. Frequently heard on the ship is the motto, "Everyone is a firefighter on board."

Accommodations on the ship are tight but clean and comfortable. I shared a junior officer stateroom with another reporter and two Vietnam-era Navy veterans. The cabin was outfitted with two steel bunk beds, closets and a small sink. It was a challenge for me to climb to the top of a double bunk bed, something I had not tried since college. Where the Marines stay a deck below, the bunk beds are stacked as tall as four racks high. Because of frequent fog, we heard the ship’s horn blowing every 60 seconds. Sailors get used to noises like that.

On the second morning, the Wasp carefully approached a tanker ship and began the lengthy process of refueling in relatively heavy seas. For a number of reasons, including environmental, the Navy often refuels at sea rather than in port. The ships maneuver into a parallel course less than 200 feet across from each other amid a rolling sea. A sailor on the Wasp used a special rifle to shoot a line across to the tanker crew. The deck crew on the Wasp then pulled a heavier line from the tanker, which was used to then pull the fuel hoses across and begin the transfer of hundreds of gallons of fuel. This is all a delicate operation and a tense time for all involved, with the ship’s captain supervising from the bridge; a slight miscalculation can cause a violent collision. Recently in the Pacific, a sister ship of Wasp, the USS Essex, collided with a tanker during a similar refueling operation.

Watching the refueling were two of the Navy’s newest ensigns just commissioned from the University of Miami of Ohio Naval ROTC program. Justin Shull of Pittsburgh will be heading to submarine school in Groton, Conn. Bryce Baswell from Fairview, Tenn., will be heading to Sasebo, Japan, to join the Austin-class amphibious transport ship USS Denver LPD-9. They looked eager and well-prepared to start their careers in the fleet.

Although separation from families is eased by the availability of email and occasional ship-to-shore telephone calls, challenges remain. ABH2 Nathaniel McCullough works on flight operation while his wife is a teacher taking care of two boys, one of who who has autism.

"He is better when on a schedule, rather than when I am coming and going on short trips like this one" said Nathan.

An operations officer, Lt. Cdr. Brian Stranahan, added, "You have to love it, to deal with the long deployments, turning spouses into single parents."

Meals were better than I expected on the Wasp, although you learn to be on time; there is no 24-hour fast food option. Snacks are available from the ships store in the evening and vending machines. I stayed up late in the ward room and enjoyed a fajita from the 11 p.m. "Mid-rats" serving those working night watches. Lt. John Harrison from York, Pa., the food service officer on the Wasp, has worked his way up from enlisted sailor to chief petty officer, eventually being chosen to commission as an officer. "It is the food that takes them away from where they were working at, say, in the engine room, maybe fire control, or even on the bridge," he said. "Maybe they were having a bad day. A hot meal prepared great can take them away from what they were doing for an hour and set their mind back in the right perspective."

Sometimes impressive moments happen by surprise. By mistake, I opened the door to the ward room galley when the entire staff of cooks and cleaners were holding a meeting and as a team were reciting the "Sailors Creed" which I learned they do everyday, a reminder that what they do supports a vital mission.

One of the most unique capabilities of modern amphibious assault ships are the well decks, which can launch hovercraft known as Landing Craft Air Cushion out the stern of ship at the water line. LCACs can carry a 60-ton payload of tanks, trucks and Marines from the ship to the beach at speeds in excess of 40 knots. The drivers of the LCACs are trained at the level of pilots, with the toughest job being when they attempt to return their craft back into the well deck of the ship in high seas amid only inches of clearance on either side.

My new rule for visiting a ship, is to make the effort to visit the engine room and greet the unsung heroes who work below decks, often not seeing the light of day. It required the CO’s permission, but I was escorted down four sets of ladders, the first of which had had a water proof hatch top on it. Below decks is definitely an industrial space, but not that uncomfortable, especially in the air-conditioned control room. Taking orders from the bridge and working on the controls were five technicians, two of whom were women. The engine room is full of video screens that show what is going on in the boilers and also on the flight deck of the ship. But perhaps some things never change: to change the speed and direction of the ship are two wheels. The right wheel is adjusted to change the forward motion of the ship, while the left wheel, painted red, is used to move the engines into reverse.

In charge was Chief Nalini Martin, a 13-year veteran from Norfolk who described how the engine room not only generates power to turn the Wasp’s twin shafts, but produces electrical power, clean water and heating. The ship can distill 200,000 gallons of water per day and uses only one third of the electrical power it can produce. After Hurricane Katrina, a sister ship of the Wasp, the USS Iwo Jima, docked in New Orleans and produced electricity used by emergency workers and thousands of homes.

The Wasp, having been built 20 years ago,still uses steam turbine engines; newer ships are replacing these with fuel-efficient diesel engines. The engine room team showed me the cigarette lighter and the torch they use to fire up the boilers after being shut down. They said it was like working in a submarine – some days they just go topside for meals and sleep.

Visiting the engine room and those who work below the waterline of the ship gave me pause to consider those sailors in earlier eras, when torpedo attacks were a constant threat. In the Wasp’s hallway between the hanger deck and the mess hall are memorial plaques to those who died in service on the two World War-era carriers named Wasp – including CV7, which was lost on Sept. 15, 1942, in t he Pacific off Guadalcanal from submarine-launched torpedoes.

Sailing into New York harbor is always a memorable experience. Standing on the deck of a U.S. Navy warship with the sailors and marines manning the rails, going under the Verrazano Bridge, passing the Statute of Liberty, rendering honors across from Ground Zero, and sailing up the Hudson River into New York City is simply unforgettable.

The Navy made their presence known to all with a line of ships entering ahead of the Wasp and a couple of low altitude fly-overs by F/A-18 Hornets from the Blue Angels air demonstration team.

For many of the sailors and Marines, this was their first visit to New York, a city that extends a warm welcome to guests from Fleet Week. They are invited to attend television shows and baseball games, and receive overwhelming hospitality throughout the big city. I told a number of sailors and Marines that the police and firemen look up to them as heroes because they have served on the front lines; the military members said they consider police and firefighters to be heroes just as well.

Several American Legion posts in Westchester hosted sailors and marines for Memorial Day parades and barbeques, including our Post 50 Pelham for the 10th-straight year. My observation is that it is important for the military members to hear the applause and appreciation of the public. It is also important for the public to see the faces of its military.

 

For more on Kraetzer’s trip, go to www.legionpost50ny.

Ken Kraetzer is a member of Squadron 50 in Pelham, N.Y., and is the host of the "SAL Radio Report" on WVOX, 1460 AM in New Rochelle, N.Y.

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