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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Thoughts on a Bicycle Ride

On 20 February I had back surgery, and I have only recently been cleared to get back on my bike. Given my limited ability to walk, the bike has meant freedom. This is a beautiful time in the Virginia Piedmont. You see so much more from a bicycle seat than you do from a car seat. This evening, while riding, this came to mind:

The Redbuds
Are no longer buds,
They're flowering,
Telling their Story,
Of spring glory.
Can Dogwoods
Be far behind?
A white bud,
A red cross,
Look over your shoulder,
The wait's almost over.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We Have Been At War a Long Time


From My Memoires:

Syria, Virginia

            I was paging through my Apple iTunes files today, and came upon an old favorite, Lee Greenwood’s I’m Proud To Be An American. Dated 1992, a full twenty-five years ago, it’s not necessarily a patriotic song. It’s more a song of admiration for one’s country. There’s been a lot of water over the dam since then. As if to remind us, yesterday United States Naval Institute Proceedings published We Have Been At War A Long Time by Captain John Byron, USN (Ret). The author reminds us that if you have a sixteen year old grandson, he has never known a time without war. We aren’t talking about war as a distant abstraction, where the Hotentots are fighting the Xhosa. We are talking about war where Americans are fighting and dying, though not to protect the United States, or even United Fruit.

Over eighty years ago a retired Marine named Smedley Butler wrote a small volume called War Is a Racket. I have the book. He wasn’t just a disaffected jarhead; he was a retired Major General, and the recipient of two awards of the Medal of Honor. He had become cynical about the employment of U.S. Forces overseas. If he could see the proliferation of our forces in over eighty countries today, he would chuckle at how things had only gotten further out of control.

U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan as long as we pay the Afghan government to host us. That government will never stand on its own. Afghanistan remains the graveyard of empires, and the “government” in Kabul, as well as the Taliban, must surely chat amongst itself in wry amusement when no Americans are about at the thought of our quest to establish a western democracy in their country. The Russians must be pleased as well.

As a former CIA field officer recently pointed out, we once had the Afghan war won, but we refused to leave.

To the southeast of Afghanistan, we are back in Iraq, to the tune of 14,000 troops. Once we finally leave that contrived state for the second time, either the Iranians will keep Iraq propped up, or it will fall down again - another one of our brilliant shots at a Muslim Middle East western style democracy for people who do not understand the concept.

We have special warfare troops all over Africa, training other country’s soldiers, most of whom serve corrupt regimes that often don’t even pay them regularly (that’s why the Malian Army ran away in the face of the Tuareg rebels marching on Timbuktu in 2015).

We have an ever increasing presence in Syria, with an apparent aim of opposing the current ruler, but no clear objective. Admittedly, continuing that civil war does bleed Iran of its ability to do evil elsewhere but at what price in human carnage? Vladimir Putin and the mullahs of Iran intend to keep the weak kneed ruler of Syria in power for their own reasons, and they have the focus that American presidents never have, so we are wasting our time in that unhappy country.

We seem desirous of depriving our own citizens of every possible social program, yet there is no end to the funds we are willing to expend on military energy world wide in efforts that appear to lead nowhere. None of these efforts benefit the United States in any way. They merely expend energy and national treasure as the “worlds only super power.” (Not for long. China has stolen most of our intellectual property, and our important secrets. Next, she will steal our place in the world).

If your son or daughter is killed in one of these adventures, these overseas adventures become less abstract. But in any case, the incomprehensible cost of these operations should give you pause. When the Congressional Freedom Caucus pledges to shut down the government if we don’t cut spending on social programs, tell ‘em to go where the real money is:

- Overseas Contingency Operations that are over funded - the extra money is harvested for military hardware goodies each year
- Two different flavors of new ICBMs - shore and sea based (one new one isn’t enough?)
- A brand new bomber
- A new fighter with flaws that should make the Pentagon blush
-    A new class of aircraft carrier so over gilded while at the same time flawed that the designers should be ashamed to claim ownership. If one of the ship’s new electro magnetic catapults must be taken down for repair or maintenance, all must be placed out of commission. What moron signed off on that design?

When we created the new “professional acquisition corps,” we were supposed to be getting a bunch of real pros, who would avoid the big mistakes, and streamline the process. It looks like we just got a new corps, instead.

Yes, war really is a racket. I’ve worked in the Pentagon; I have seen how this shit is sold. Yet no one is ashamed. It isn’t just that the Pentagon cannot get enough. The likes of Congress and HRH, Donald Trump can’t either. Smedley Butler was right.

First Run - March 1981


From My Memoires:

            We hit the sea buoy about nine forty-five in the morning. It was a slate gray Maine winter day. Strictly speaking it wasn’t winter anymore, but in Maine it would be winter for quite some time. Ice fishing for smelts would be a going concern for at least four more weeks. The snow would last longer.
            “Captain Rich has left the ship.” It was Petty Officer Kubala, our sea detail throttle man on the bridge. He’d sent the message down over the sound powered 1JV circuit. “The tug has cleared the ship,” called out Chumley, our engineering messenger of the watch. He had opened the viewport to weather, and so was the only snipe (engineer) who could see anything of the now receding Kennebec River. The viewport was a device that generations of sailors had called a porthole, but the Naval Sea Systems Command, NAVSEA for short, bowing to its compulsion to rename nearly everything, had decided that porthole was perhaps too old fashioned. Lucky for us, they never got around to renaming some really antiquated devices such as the ‘gun’.
            Captain Rich was Captain Bill Rich, the Bath Iron Works’ captain. He was a fully qualified Kennebec River pilot, as well as a Coast Guard licensed Master with enough tonnage to take any vessel on trials that the Iron Works might build. Being a reserve Navy captain, Captain Rich worked well with the commanding officers of the ships he was shepherding up and down the river. The Captain had more bridge time than any of the Navy COs he took down the river. He was a welcome source of ship handling characteristics for new Navy commanding officers who had spent the last few years in Washington, and might be a bit rusty.
            I heard the low moan of the old Detroit Diesel 71 series in the Iron Works’ little toot as she passed our starboard side on her way back up river. A whiff of diesel exhaust slipped in through the view port before Chumley dogged it down.
            The trip down the river had been routine. What could go wrong, you might think. Well, the most experienced operators of this highly automated new warship class were the Bath Iron Works operating engineers. When they went down the river for trials, they turned off all the automatic propulsion control features, except when they had to demonstrate them. That tells you something. But you can’t tell the Navy anything.
            The journey out of Bath, all the way to our new homeport of Mayport Florida began three days earlier. The Iron Works began loading a limited number of crew members’ cars on to the flight deck. Only a select number of senior crew got to take their cars. We carefully drove each into the helo hangars, where they were spotted, chocked, and chained, after being inspected for leaks, and to ensure that their fuel tanks were full. The Damage Control Assistant, Ensign John Daniel Zimmerman, made careful weight and moment calculations, ensuring that the vehicles would not adversely affect stability. The ship was built for two 13,500 pound helicopters, not quite this load out. A security watch would check on the cars every hour, just in case.
            Our two General Electric LM-2500 gas turbine engines began winding up as soon as the after lookout reported the tug well clear. The engines were controlled from the bridge, so those of us down here in the central engineering control station, or CCS, just watched the instruments as the ship passed twenty knots. Down here in the engineering spaces, low in the ship, we could barely detect the fact that we had passed out into the Atlantic. The long ocean swell, traveling all the way from Europe, was working on us now. In spite of the lack of feeling, I could see the effect on the pitch indictor on the port bulkhead. USS Clifton Sprague had gone to sea as a navy ship for the first time. We had been a Bath ship for so long. Some of the crew would really miss the place. A small, nucleus crew had lived there for nearly a year while the yard completed the ship. Many of us had witnessed final testing of ship systems. Some had established romantic relationships. At least one son had been conceived there. A few crew members didn’t want to leave. It was a curious feeling to finally be free of the building yard, but we were definitely a Navy ship, without a single yard bird aboard. We belonged at sea. As proud as we were of our ship, there was a certain shortage of experience, at least in our current jobs. At the end of this trip lay the first entry into our home port to the acclaim of hundreds of family members and our squadron commodore and his staff.
            In commissioning a new destroyer everyone must be trained. The two exceptions are the captain and his second in command, the executive officer. Their depth of experience puts them in the position of being responsible for ensuring the remainder of the crew is trained. Every crew member reports to the pre commissioning detail with training, but they must be molded into a team. All that is just fine, and quite doable. There is one thing, however, that rests on a single individual’s shoulders. The prospective commanding officer, the man who will assume command at commissioning, must determine who amongst his officers will initially be trusted as officers of the deck.
            The officer of the deck is entrusted with the safety of the ship and all the men in her when the captain is not on the bridge, and the captain cannot always be on the bridge. The OOD is the captain’s representative, empowered to make any decision necessary in an emergency in order to ensure the safety of the ship. Under normal circumstances, when a new commanding officer comes aboard a ship, she is an operating concern. There are officers qualified to stand officer of the deck, qualified by the incumbent. The new captain may find that he does not care for one or more of them, but he has a start point. But with a new ship, not only has the captain never seen any of his watch officers in action, neither has anyone else on the ship.
            The commanding officer of this ship took a cautious and sensible approach. He qualified his three line department heads (including myself), and no others, as officers of the deck. The captain wrote in his night orders that he wanted to be called at a reasonable time any time another ship was going to have a closest point of approach of less than 10,000 yards, and any time that we detected another warship. These were pretty standard orders. Depending on how much closer than 10,000 yards the other ship was going to come, and which officer was on watch, the captain might or might not come up for a look, no matter what the hour. That was pretty standard, too.
            We were equipped with some new systems, and not all of them worked all that well. You might think the Navy would know better, but you would be wrong.
            The second night at sea. I was on watch at about 2230. We picked up a radar contact about twenty miles distant, which tracked steadily in on a constant bearing. That meant that if neither of us maneuvered we would collide. I found it curious that at ten miles range his lights were still not visible. Our signalmen could also see nothing through their high powered binoculars. I gave the Captain a call; he told me to keep him advised. At five miles we were still on a collision course, and we still could see no lights. I called the captain back, and told him that I figured it might be a small fishing boat, though the weather was getting a bit rough for that sort of thing. The captain was a bit of a micro manager, so I was surprised when he told me to just keep him advised. I took that as a vote of confidence.
            As the range closed under three miles, I had the signalmen pull the red night filters off their signal lamps to use them as searchlights. The combat information center began feeding them search vectors. I called the captain back. I told him that radar showed us on a collision course, but we saw nothing. I had our searchlights trained out, and I intended to do visual avoidance. I took the conn from the junior officer of the deck, who is in training, and stayed out on the engaged bridge wing along with the lookout, who was directly above me on the flying bridge. The signalmen called out the range as they got it from below. Shortly the captain was next to me, watching. Finally, up came “contact is in sea return, collision should be imminent.”
            There was nothing there. No small craft. No debris on the sea to reflect an errant radar signal. Nothing. The contact was apparently being generated from within our own radar set. That was plenty disconcerting, though on some level, I suppose it was good that we understood the problem. The captain looked over at me in the dim moonlight. “That was scary.” He kind of popped his eyebrows up and down with a grin. “Better get a message off to NAVSEA in the morning.” “Yes sir,” I nodded, relieved that I wasn’t driving around the North Atlantic playing bumper cars with small craft. Radar was not a panacea, but it was supposed to be better than this. The Navy’s new, state of the art surface search radar left much to be desired.
            Early the next day things went to hell. We were making sixteen knots on a southerly course when I came up on deck to relieve the morning watch. I started out on the port bridge wing, where I didn’t much like the look of the clouds. The sky was slate gray and the sea state was at least a five. The ship was running in an uncomfortable quartering sea. These Oliver Hazard Perry class ships had big tall deck houses that ran a considerable of the length of the hull. All that sail area made them very tender in a blow. The bow was also nearly burying itself in the seas. The wind was veering some. I went into the chart house looking for a weather report. The chief quartermaster was in there working on the 0800 position report. His instruments were rolling around. Considering the fact that the Navy’s ships went to sea in all weather, you would think that it would build things like chart tables with all sorts of little compartments to hold navigational instruments. If you thought that, you would be wrong. Generations of sailors have had to tape little cardboard boxes and bits of double sided masking tape to their plotting tables to keep pencils, dividers, and rulers from flying around in heavy seas. The chief handed me a yellow sheet of paper. “Looks like a big bad storm’s a comin’”, he offered up. “Temperature’s to freezin’.” “Lovely,” I answered, “just lovely. Captain know?” “OOD called ‘im.” “Thanks Chief.”
            I relieved the officer of the deck. The watch was slow. We saw a few merchantmen at a distance. About 1045 the bow starting to bury about twice a minute, and ice formed on the bullnose. I called the Captain. He came up and sat in his chair on the starboard side of the bridge watching the ship work in the seas for a while. The bow was starting to bury regularly and throw up spray, much of which was accumulating on the forward face of the pilot house. I zipped up my foul weather jacket and went out to the starboard bridge wing. The wind and the sea spray were stinging my face, but the jacket kept me warm. I bent over the forward coaming. The front of the pilot house was coated with ice. I motioned to the captain to take a look. He looked at me. “At this rate, we’ll gain another couple of tons by midnight. Have the word passed for the XO to the bridge.”
            The chief quartermaster had overheard the conversation. He came over and mentioned to the captain that the barometer had dropped another two tenths.
            The wind kept increasing. The seas kept increasing. The ice kept increasing. The captain’s estimate of ice accumulation was modest. In the era of steam ships, a destroyer would use a steam lance to remove accumulated ice. We had no steam.
            We contacted the fleet commander and received permission to pull into Newport until the weather improved. It turned out that the fleet commander had already pulled in there himself with a half dozen units. That left no room for us at the former naval station. They stuck us up the bay at the fuel piers in Melville.
            I was the officer of the deck as we approached my old stomping grounds. Just as the Captain had no idea how much confidence to place in me when he first gave me the charge as an officer of the deck, so I had no idea what kind of stuff my junior officer of the deck was made of. The Junior OOD is in training to be qualified as an officer of the deck. Accordingly he performs many of the OOD’s duties under the watchful eye of the OOD, who has the actual responsibility. As an example, he will have the conn, i.e. he will “drive” the ship, as long a the ship is not in some tricky situation. He will also attend to the navigational plot, along with the quartermaster of the watch. But the ship had been underway for less than a week. I hardly knew my fellow officers as seamen. While willing to work with them in the open ocean, the restricted and hazardous waters of the coastal regions were something else. I preferred my own instincts as we closed the coast, so I took more direct control.
            The morning watch, which runs from four to seven, began tough enough. It was sea state five when I came on deck, with no moon. The world was flat black. In the dim red night lighting we could only hear the ship pounding into the seas, then rising to shed tons of water. I hung on to the taut cable that ran across the bridge as the ship rolled twenty-five degrees one way, then thirty degrees the other. There was little to be seen on either bridge wing. By the chart I could tell that we would see Newport by sunrise. I zipped up my foul weather jacket and went out on the bridge wing for another look. The sky was spitting ice. It was covering the main deck. Our line handlers would be in trouble in the morning. By now it was about five thirty. I called the weapons officer to warn him about the decks, then the Captain.
            The bos’n mate of the watch had gotten a good look at the situation and called the Master Chief Bos’n. “Request permission to come on the bridge.” “Granted,” I said. It was the Master Chief. He came out on the bridge wing with me. We leaned over the coaming, looking at the foc’sle. “This does not look good, Cheng,” he spat through his teeth through the blowing ice. I nodded. The ice was already accumulating on his ball cap. “I’m gonna roll some guys out early.” And with that he struck below.
            There was no sunrise. Let’s call it first light. The ice storm died out gradually as the light appeared. “Request permission to come on the bridge.” “Granted.” The Navigator walked to the chart table, communed with the Chief Quartermaster for a few moments over the navigation plot, then joined me on the bridge wing. “Heck of a place you grew up in, Cheng.” “There are sub optimal days,” I agreed. We heard the deck division scraping and chopping ice from the foc’sle right below us. The bos’uns worked for the Navigator. “Hey Boats,” he called down, “all those men get breakfast?” “Yes Sir!” The answer drifted back up through the wind and the hiss of the bow wave as we pushed through the North Atlantic chop. “The other half are eating now. We gotta git the lines out when they git back up.” “Roger that.” He turned to me. “THIS is fucked up. But it beats icin’ up some more. Shit. Richard’ll be up to relieve you shortly.” “Thanks Lou,” I said. He probably wouldn’t bother with breakfast. His department was in charge of mooring; this morning would be the first time we would do it. Ever. All the senior personnel had done it on other ships, but the USS Clifton Sprague team had never done it. Our nervous, micro managing captain, and our hyper micro managing XO were no doubt pleased that we were doing it in front of an audience of a few Navy civilian dock hands, instead of our squadron commodore and all the other ships in Naval Station Mayport. Still, it was the first time.
            The sky was a nasty gray, and the seas were angry, with white horses throwing foam off their tops in jet like plumes as the heavy wind beat at their tops. It was classic sea state six. We had no choice but to come right to line up for our approach into the bay, but in so doing the ship slipped into the trough and rolled worse. Breakfast would be a challenge. “The Captain’s on the bridge,” called the bos’n. The Captain had come up for a look before breakfast. He looked at me with a half grin as he shook his head. In the daylight the icing was frightening. At reveille we passed the word “all hands remain clear of the weather decks due to heavy icing.” John Zimmerman, the Damage Control Assistant, stopped by the bridge to let me know that the vehicles in the helo hangars were still secure. He came to me with a grimace, walking hand over hand along the athwartship heavy weather cable running the width of the bridge.
            It was easy to pick up the Newport/Jamestown coastline on radar - it was solid rock, with rocky outcroppings standing right off shore. It painted on radar in the exact shape as it was portrayed on the chart. I sighted the light of Brenton Reef Tower, two whites every ten seconds. The Ice storm had moderated without my even noticing.   As the ship passed Brenton Tower on our way into Narragansett Bay the lee of the land calmed things down considerably, though the biting cold remained.
            The XO had come up while I was out on the bridge wing. He was a strange man, a micro manager, which is a useful trait in an executive officer, but he was strung tight as a drum without a propensity to ever raise his voice. That was a curious combination in a naval officer. He sought to implement a weekly planning system on the ship without implementing it, which is to say he would sit down each week with his department heads to plan the week using his self created forms which he expected us to live by, but he would not necessarily share them. Still, he was not a bad fellow. He would have been a useful buffer between a micro managing captain and his department heads, but this captain could not be stopped from constantly reaching down to individual department heads, for fear that some small detail wasn’t being done properly. The Captain forever worried about getting in trouble with his micro managing commodore.
            I slowed the ship to twelve knots and walked over to the XO. “You look like the abominable snow man,” he said to me with a straight face. I realized that I was dripping water from the ice melting off my foul weather gear, hat, and eyebrows. “Sorry, XO, I lost track.” “Musta been a heck of a watch, Cheng (Chief Engineer).” “It was that. Time to set sea detail, Sir.” He gave me that strange smile of his where he cocks his head back just a little, then he slid out of the port bridge chair and ambled over to the Captain with that funny back and forth walk of his. Less than a minute later the bos’n piped “attention”, then passed “go to your stations all the special sea and anchor detail.”
            Three quarters of an hour later we had a bay pilot aboard, and I was in the engineering control station when Chumley, our phone talker reported “the Mount Whitney’s at the navy base, along with a bunch of cruisers and destroyers.” It hadn’t been a navy base for eight years, but the Navy still owned the piers, and used them for a variety of purposes. Mount Whitney was easy to spot. There were two of her class, one on each coast. She was the Second Fleet flag ship. “Open the port,” I told the messenger. A stream of frigid air streamed in from the other side of the control console as he undogged the cover. “It’s snowing,” the messenger called out, “sort of like flurries.” “Close her back up,” I ordered, “It’s too friggin’ cold.” He said nothing, but I could hear the exterior sounds cease, and the cold begin to let up. “She’s dogged back down, Cheng.”
            Later, we moored at the Defense Fuel Support Point in Melville, Rhode Island. It’s a lonely place; a big pier, big enough to fuel a cruiser, or take alongside a tanker to discharge her cargo. The series of large pipes on the pier leads through manifolds and pumps into huge underground bunkers where the Navy stores millions of gallons of diesel and jet fuel. It’s a lonely place. Aside from the pier and the piping, there is a pump house, and well over a square mile of land where stand the rounded concrete tops of the underground tanks. Grass grows between them, leaving the impression that the tanks grew out the earth like gigantic mushrooms. A single road, Burma Road, ran south through the fog between the tanks to the former naval base, now a training center. The Second Fleet flag ship and its escorts were down there in the fog. As the temperature rose just a bit a thick fog blanket formed over the ice. We would sit here for a bit.
            Just north of the fuel pier was a marina, planted where thousands of workers had hurriedly churned out PT boats and landing craft during World War Two. All that remains of their efforts is a plaque in one of the storage sheds commemorated their work.
            I walked out on the pier. Ice covered most everything. Two civilians were spreading sand everywhere. Petty Officer J. W. Purnell, my oil king, and two enginemen were hooking up a potable water hose to a hydrant. It was foggy, but it felt colder than shit out here. Keeping the hose from freezing would be a trick. Purnell saw me and came over. He saluted, then held up a pocket thermometer that read twenty-nine degrees. “It’s dropped four degrees since we got out here, Cheng. I’ll have a hose running over the other side, but we’ll have to keep an eye on things. Maybe put it on the sounding and security check list.” “Good idea,” I said. My foul weather jacket kept me warm, but the cold wind was biting right through my pants and long underwear. “It feels like it’s just gonna get worse, JW. I’ll talk to the DCA.”
            I thought I would rush back to the ship, but walking back up the brow felt like moving through molasses. The cold wind was killing. I plopped down in the wardroom with a cup of black coffee. Dan Baker, my Main Propulsion Assistant, came in. “Hey boss,” he said, “they won’t fuel us today. The sand crabs won’t work in this weather.” “I’m not surprised,” I said, breathing in the heat from the coffee that I was too tired to drink.
            I picked up the phone and dialed my folks in Pawtucket. My mother answered. “Hi Mom. I’m in Newport.” “Oh, really,” she said. “The weather was terrible, and we had to pull in. we’re at the fuel pier in Melville.” Silence. “Can we get together?” I hadn’t seen them in months. “Gary, the weather is horrible. We can’t go out. Have you seen the weather?” “Sure I have. I came in from the sea this morning. Sure. I understand. If the weather gets better, we’ll pull out in the morning, otherwise, we’ll be here longer. Take care.” “OK. Bye.”
            Within two hours the potable water line was nearly frozen. Purnell pulled the overboard line off, replacing it with another that gushed over the side. Two days later the weather let us out. We made max available speed for our home port of Mayport, Florida, where the afternoon temperatures were running about seventy degrees.
            Next winter we would be back in Bath for post shakedown availability. Gosh. That will be another tale. Two winters in a row in Bath Maine. To be honest, I had a great time  during both winters. New Englanders and winter - its like a tuned circuit.

Christmas 1977


From My Memoires:

            Christmas Eve, 1977. I stood on the quarterdeck of USS Pharris (FF-1094), in port Mina Sulman, Bahrain. Bahrain was a small island nation about a third of the way up the west coast of the Persian Gulf. Four weeks ago we had sailed down the Suez Canal, stopping in Great Bitter Lake. We sat in the lake, anchored with the rest of our south bound convoy, while the north bound canal convoy steamed past. Suez is a one way canal. Great Bitter Lake, about two thirds of the way down the canal, is a place where you view scenes that time forgot. If Jesus were to walk on this water, his eyes would feel comfortable with the sights. The vessels haven’t changed in two thousand years. There were small rowed canoes and scows, obviously fashioned from hand hewn timbers, and sailing craft with hand stitched lateen sails rigged to ancient spars fashioned from tree limbs that had seen little preparation prior to their having been put to use aboard ship. The people aboard those boats could have come out of another millennium as well.
            Throughout the canal transit we caught good views of the debris that still littered the Sinai from the Yom Kippur war, strewn about the desert right to the canal edge. They were a testimony to war’s waste. There were remnants of the Soviet mobile bridging equipment that the Egyptians had used to rapidly ford the canal and take the heavily fortified Israeli Bar Lev Line in the early hours of the war. They sat there as informal war memorials.
            A groomed dirt road follows the west bank, carrying everything from cars and trucks to ancient donkey carts and ZSU-23 anti aircraft guns.
            As we passed through Port Suez at the southern terminus we saw a city still in ruins from the war. A burnt out Egyptian tank still occupied a traffic circle near the water’s edge, its gun fully depressed in permanent surrender, one of its tracks blown off.
            Every ship must carry a Suez Canal Company pilot. After discharging ours, we steamed down the Red Sea, dodging gas and oil rigs that flared off excess gas, lighting up the night with wasteful flames as we sailed past the Western Sinai mountains that made shadows in the night sky. There was a quick, unmemorable stop in Jeddah, then, a day later, at first light, we exited the Gate of Tears at the south end of the Red Sea, skirted the hostile Yemeni coast, and cruised west through the North Arabian Sea. We were preparing to endure one of the Navy’s least interesting deployments in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean littoral.
            Now, for what it was worth, Christmas had come. For most of the crew, it was the first time spending the holiday in a non Christian country. Things weren’t quite like Saudi Arabia; chaplains could wear their shoulder boards and insignia ashore with the religious symbols on them. But signs of non Muslim religions in this country were scarce. The most Christmas like thing was the weather. It was barely in the forties, with twenty knots of wind. Though I was out there standing watch with my heavy bridge coat and scarf, I was freezing. Anyone who thought the Gulf was a tropical area hadn’t been there in winter.
            I had been commissioned less than two years ago. Back when I’d been buying my initial kit of uniforms, the bridge coat was listed as “optional, may be prescribed.” I had bought one because it looked cool. If you bought the Navy issue coat at government small stores instead of one off the rack at a commercial uniform shop, you got a coat of genuine Melton wool that weighed nearly fifteen pounds, would shed moisture all day, and stop a thirty knot breeze. Thankfully, that’s what I was wearing today. I was experiencing all those hazards.
            Over the stern the shipyard stretched for a mile or more in each direction, filled with Mercedes sedans and construction materials, lined up in perfect rows. It was the bounty of Bahrain’s oil wealth that was pouring in faster than it could be taken away. Some of it would no doubt be driven across the causeway into eastern Saudi Arabia, since there was only so much this little island could absorb. Each day the bounty in the shipyard grew. The pallets of cement bags grew. The pallets of lumber grew. No trucks ever seemed to come to cart them away. No drivers came to drive the Mercedes away. So it seemed to me. “So,” I thought, “this is what petrodollars do.”
            On our way into Mina Sulman we had passed countless ships anchored in the roadstead on the approaches to the harbor. They were all awaiting a berth to unload. Bahrain had ordered so much stuff with its new found wealth that the ships delivering it were piled up at its doorstep; Bahrain was paying for them to sit there and await their turn at anchor.
            As the sunlight faded, I could see the lights come on in Muharraq, the religious center of the country. Sailors preferred the capital, Manama. You could get liquor with your meal there.
            We were in port for the Christmas holiday, enjoying a respite from our mission of showing the flag in the Middle East Force backwater. Unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain was home to numerous churches, but few sailors sought them out at Christmas. They were more likely to look for a bowl of the excellent curry and a bottle of beer.
            USS Pharris was not going anywhere fast. She was, in the terms of Navy sarcasm, welded to the pier. Anyone brave and foolish enough to dive into the cold and mildly polluted waters of Mina Sulman would see that the ship’s single nineteen foot propeller had had its blades bent back round against each other like pretzels. This crude, crippling piece of bronze art had a sad story.
            Pharris, named for Chief Warrant Officer Jackson Charles Pharris, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, had sailed for Bahrain in company with USS Dupont. Dupont’s commanding officer was considerably senior to Pharris’ Captain, and so he commanded the little two ship group, destined to become part of the three ship United States Middle East Force.
            When the two ships arrived at the outer harbor of Mina Sulman they fueled at a large pier before taking on a pilot to finally moor in the inner harbor. The catch was that Mina Sulman had only one pilot, who didn’t take ships in after dark, and it was getting late. The senior ship, Dupont, would go in first. Pharris would have to anchor out in the roadstead for the night and go pier side in the morning.
            As the fuel hoses were being disconnected, Dupont’s commanding officer, not a man accustomed to being told no, arrived aboard Pharris. When he left fifteen minutes later, our Captain assembled his officers in the wardroom for a quick briefing. We would not be going to anchorage. As Dupont entered the inner harbor, guided by the pilot, Pharris would follow in her wake.
            As a young ensign, I was surprised. The more experienced officers were appalled. Then we were dismissed to make all preparations for getting underway. Stopping by my stateroom to grab my pipe, I bumped into my room mate, Chip Boyd, the OPS Officer, going over the underway checklist. He looked up at me with a sad, angry face, and shook his head, then went back to work.
            It was my turn to stand watch in the engineering spaces to complete my qualifications, so I didn’t witness the events that followed on the bridge. The engine room had a mirror over the main reduction gear so that those in main control could see the main shaft. Suddenly, as we were steaming into port, the ship began vibrating heavily, and the main shaft started to jump. Without being ordered by the bridge, the Chief Engineer on his own ordered the main throttle valve closed, then cracked it slightly to prevent bowing the main engine rotor.
            Our phone talker in main control told us that there was confusion on the bridge. The order came down from the bridge for five knots ahead. At five knots the ship went ahead like a hobby horse, bouncing up and down. We stopped the engine. Our phone talker said there were tugs on the way. We tried to steam ahead again. The ship began to hobby horse again. We stopped, and dropped the anchor. Shortly, we took two tugs along side, weighed anchor, and the tugs brought us to an anchorage.
            We were in the midst of oil country. The next morning, a British underwater salvage diver came out to dive on us. He surfaced, his graying beard plastered to his ruddy face, dried off his wet suit, and sat down on the after capstan with a pencil and paper. The Captain, the XO, and the Chief Engineer clustered ‘round him as he sketched the state of our single propeller. “Yer prop’s all bent over like a pretz’l,” he said, pointing to the rough drawing on his lap. “It’s ruint. It’s gotta go,” he insisted in an accent that placed him somewhere outside of the British public school education system. “Yer gonna need ta have a new one sent over fer sure,” he continued, raising his eyebrows as he looked the captain straight in the eye. The expression on the Captains face cannot be adequately described. Horror, disappointment, and something else. He was a man who had just ruined the thing that he had worked for all his adult life.
            In the morning two tugs dragged us in to the pier, since we could not power ourselves in. I was too young and inexperienced to be involved in the repair planning, but the job of an underwater propeller repair was a fascinating evolution to watch. Before it could begin, a new prop and a repair team had to be flown in from the States with special equipment.
            It would take the largest transport aircraft in the U.S. inventory, a C-5A, to fly the necessary gear out to fix us - a new prop, a balance beam, some special tools, and a few pros from Dover to supervise the whole operation. Those lucky pros would spend their New Years in beautiful Bahrain.
            My first clue that the C-5A with the new prop had landed was the appearance of a tug warping a barge with the new prop alongside the pier by our stern. There was plenty of work to be done. Not only would the prop need to be changed. The sonar dome had scraped the bottom. The no foul coating had been damaged, leaving a “beard” that would make a ton of noise on the sonar. It would need to be trimmed. More work for that diver with “the sharpest knife we could find.” “That coating is some tough,” he said, as he emerged from the chilly pier side waters after another dive. This one had been on the bow, where the sonar dome juts out like a big, bulbous chin. “I could try a linoleum knife to start. The coating is all ripped off like a beard. I can just imagine what it’ll sound like at speed.” He was referring to the flapping that the ripped coating would make on our sensitive sonar equipment as we steamed through the water. I noticed the OPS officer roll his eyes. The weapons officer owned the sonar, but I had already figured out that he was the least sharp of the department heads. The Operations Officer, my room mate, was by far the smartest, and the most skilled. He didn’t say a word, or make a gesture, but I could see the expression on his face. The moment he had heard the diver’s report, he might as well have rolled his eyes back in his head.
            The Captain, XO, and three line department heads stood in a circle on the fantail, talking with the diver, seemingly lost. The ball was in the Captain’s court, but he had done the damage, and I could see him from across the fantail, looking for a blinding stroke of genius from his department heads, or maybe his XO. No one spoke. Then my room mate, Chip Boyd, spoke up. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was talking with his hands. They walked off to the interior of the ship.
            The quarterdeck was a quiet place at this time of day. I wandered to the port quarter to get a look down at the barge. The giant prop’s edges were carefully protected by specially fitted wrapping. Though it was huge, it was a high precision instrument. At it’s center was a hole milled to within a few thousands of an inch to fit our shaft’s keyway. Along its edge were tiny holes. When underway air compressors blew air through those holes to prevent cavitation. That reduced our  noise signature when hunting submarines; as a rule we were always doing that when at sea. Next  to the new prop was a steel beam about fifty feet long. It would be used to remove the old prop and install the new one while the ship was in the water. There was also a bunch of chain. In the distance I saw the tug returning to the pier with a second barge, this one containing a crane. The pros from Dover were wasting no time.
            In less than a week Pharris had a new prop and was ready to go. There remained only the punishment of the guilty, and this being the Navy, a few innocent as well.