By lex, on October 12th, 2003
Ninety thousand tons of diplomacy. Four and half acres of sovereign US territory, going where it will, as it will. Some French midshipmen I was escorting 20 years ago got their first look at a US style carrier (USS John F. Kennedy) in Norfolk, Virginia. One of them, the most talkative (and that was a keen competition) said to me, “la porte-avion, c’est grande, c’est giantesque, mais ce n’est pas tellement belle.”
He had a point, they’re not exactly beautiful. It is almost undoubtedly the single most complex instrument of war that has ever been created. While there is a great deal of mechanical complexity to be sure, the human element is no less byzantine. Five thousand men and women working round the clock in shifts, or watches, means that the big gray girl never truly sleeps. There is the constant whirr of electric and hydro-mechanical equipment, ventilators and people treading the decks, and that’s just in the living spaces. In the engineering spaces, there is a constant din and screech. Hearing protection required.
It’s practically impossible to describe what it sounds like when flight ops are going on. On the O-3 (oh-three) deck, just below the flight deck, conversations take place in the thirty or forty-five seconds between catapult shots, the nearly sixty seconds between arrested landings. You’ll stop what you’re saying in mid-sentence, gazing politely into the eyes of your interlocutor until the noise becomes more nearly bearable, then pick up again where you left off. Such intervals will go on for 30 or 40 minutes. After a while you don’t even notice.
On the flight deck itself, directors use headsets to communicate with the air boss or flight deck control, for everyone else up there not on the radio, there are elaborate hand signals, arm signals really, if they are to be read at any distance.
The ship will serve around 18,000 meals a day, of varying quality. There are usually greenstuffs to be had, the resupply system is simply incredible, a legacy from the coal ship navy. In those days, a fleet crossing the ocean would pull into forward bases and re-stock on coal. As we moved to fossil fuels, the coaling stations became jumping off points for resupply ships to bring the gas to the ships at sea, for underway replenishment. Even the nuclear powered ships get routine logistic “hits” for foodstuffs, spare parts and mail. But back to food, it’s safe to say that most shore-going sailors in foreign ports are looking for a good meal, once they get ashore.
Oh yeah, and beer.
The US Navy is a dry navy, unlike some of our civilized allies. The Secretary of the Navy during WWI, Josephus Daniels, put an end to the beer rations and wine messes. In his honor, we named a ship after him. So it’s not uncommon when coming back to the ship from a visit to a foreign shore to share a boat with a young 18 year old sailor who has never before had a beer, and has that night had too many. The consequences are predictable, regrettable and all too often get all over your shoes.
We were all young once.
Speaking of youth, the average age aboard a carrier is right around 20 years of age. Taking into account the old men of the ship, (admiral, the Captain, the several captains and commanders of the embarked staffs and air wing), that pushes an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of kids just out of high school. Responsibility for exceptionally expensive pieces of equipment and irreplaceable lives. And they do it brilliantly, under conditions convicts would not be forced to endure. Day after day, months on end. I’m very proud to be associated with them, they are the cream of American youth.
Sometimes you hear people bewail the state of the coming generation, and worry about what will become of us in our old age, leaving the legacy our parents gave to us to the kids coming up today.
Don’t worry – we’ll be just fine. We’re in great hands.