…1981 – YEAR OF THE SHAKEDOWN…President Reagan…Hostages released…Reagan assassination attempt…Pope assassination attempt…Sadat assassinated…AIDS…Gaddafi…Beirut…Iran Contra…Iraqi Embassy…Air Traffic Controllers…Test tube baby…Sandra Day O’Conner…Space shuttle Columbia…Stealth Fighter…Viet Nam Memorial…Royal Wedding…MTV…HBO…Entertainment Tonight…Donkey Kong… Luke and Laura…Raiders of the Lost Ark…Double Fantasy…In the Air Tonight…Cujo…Red Dragon…Ali retires…Eli Manning, Natalie Portman, and Justin Timberlake born…Bob Marley, Bobby Sands, and Natalie Wood die…
…An aircraft carrier is a thing of terrible beauty.
An aircraft carrier is a warship of massive size and capacity for destruction; a seagoing airbase with more people onboard than lived in my hometown; ninety five thousand tons of the most powerful weapons on earth. The jewel of any modern battle fleet.
A giant floating target.
The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz was commissioned in 1975. In 1979, Nimitz was the launch site for the failed attempt to rescue U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran. Though only interior shots of the real ship ever appeared onscreen, in 1980 she starred in the Pearl Harbor time-travel movie, The Final Countdown. Kirk Douglas was her cinematic Commanding Officer.
1980 was also the year I walked up the Nimitz gangplank for the first time.
On the night of May 26, 1981, I was on my first cruise, a standard training exercise in the Atlantic, a Gitmo cruise, Guantanamo Bay. We’d only been out of Norfolk a few days. More importantly, we were going ashore in Ft. Lauderdale in a few more. It was looking like this sailor thing I’d gotten myself into might work out.
Boot camp had been okay. Though not a leader, I was in that second and much larger tier of recruits: the adequate. The less-than-adequate had to be propped up by the rest of us to make it through. Only the hopeless were forced, or allowed, out.
I went to Mess Specialist cooking school in San Diego. I had a fit and trim drop and give me twenty swagger, a sharp new uniform, and near-beer in the on-base club. Strip clubs right outside the gates and hippy beaches within walking distance. Rock and roll.
I went home for two extraordinary weeks.
I’d been hoping to get assigned close enough to home that I could get back once in a while, or far enough away I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I got both my wishes. The Navy sent me just a couple hundred miles down the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia, but to an aircraft carrier that had just spent a hundred and forty four straight days at sea.
Nimitz was in the shipyard when I came aboard.
Cooks were an elite group. We controlled the food. Few of us had battle stations outside the galley, and we were always allowed showers even under severe restricted water conditions. I fell in with a hard partying bunch of Shellbacks who looked out for their friends and terrorized everybody else. Thanks to a trippy-sharp king of the steam kettles named Domyan, I scored one of the most independent, creative, and cleanest jobs a boot camp could get on the mess deck. Dom later compared choosing me from the other recruits to being given the pick of a litter of puppies and selecting the least dumb looking.
Soon I’d be in Ft. Lauderdale.
But on this balmy night in May, while many shipmates slept, I was hanging out in our Supply-2 berthing, laughing with some of the hardcases. Our space was just a few levels below the flight deck. I‘d started to get used to the takeoffs and landings topside. None of us knew anything unusual was going on up there until the klaxon sounded. Men rushed around grabbing firefighting gear. Everyone donned gas masks. Hatches were secured, shutting those of us in the cook’s living compartment into a suddenly claustrophobic steel box. This procedure ensures watertight integrity. It scares the hell out of an 18 year old underachiever who’d left his Batman cape out of his sea-bag.
This is what happened: Thunderstorms and a dark witching hour haze created problems for aircrews running routine training operations. While attempting to land, a marine EA-6B Prowler jetfighter crashed into maintenance equipment and a row of secured aircraft . The Prowler exploded, killing the crew and sending a fireball of metal and fuel rolling across the flight deck. Twenty millimeter ammunition cooked to eruption, hurling shrapnel fragments into the bodies of the men on deck at flash speed.
An AIM-7 Sparrow missile that was buried in smoking debris detonated. A second one went off. Then a third and a fourth. It was like four and a half acres of hell erupted off the coast of Cuba.
There were jet fuel pipes running through our quarters, right next to where I would have been sleeping on a normal night. Every once in a while, the overhead hatch would open. Guys wearing more elaborate protective gear than we had would come down to check for gas leaks and pass scuttlebutt.
Firefighting, rescue, and cleanup procedures lasted throughout the night. We went up to the galley around 0300 to feed people. We passed through the medical deck on our way.
Wish I hadn’t done that.
Fourteen dead, thirty-nine injured.
We returned to Norfolk before the next day was over, unloaded our casualties, and forty eight hours later were back at sea on our ghost ship
My home for the next thirty months…