The ship’s Captain stood by his chair on the bridge in his Service Dress Blues, his binoculars fixed on the channel marker just outside the carrier turning basin at Naval Station North Island, California. He briefly suppressed, and then just as briefly gave in to the temptation to sweep the pier with the binos, looking for his wife and children. Seven months. It had been such a very long seven months. There were thousands of people thronging on the pier, waving flags and signs – “Welcome Home, Son!” and “We Missed You Mommy!”
The civilian harbor pilot stood just to his right, in amiable but meaningless conversation with the Officer of the Deck – this was an experienced crew, and the pilot’s main purpose was to control the three tugboats that brought the great warship alongside the pier after it had made its final turn, gliding in.
The flight deck was starkly bare of aircraft and gleaming in the mid-day light – the air wing had flown off earlier that day, at 0600 that morning, and for the first time in half a year, he could see the full sweep and breadth of the real estate entrusted to his care. The handler and his men had done a brilliant job in the post-launch scrub down, and – combined with the rust work done while in port in Perth, Australia – the ship could receive visitors just as soon as she was moored without fear of embarrassing herself. So long, the Captain had to admit, as they didn’t see her port side, the side that faced to sea when moored – there had not been enough money available to touch up the port side.
The reality of what he had accomplished – what they had all accomplished – was thrusting itself upon him, even as he tried to keep focused on the task at hand: Mooring 100,000 tons of aircraft carrier to unyielding concrete with only a breasting barge and some Yokohama fenders to separate them was not child’s play. Still, he was bursting with the pride of what his crew had done, and he had to admit that he was proud as well to be their commanding officer: They had gone half-way around the globe and back again carrying persistent combat power with them. They had provided critical, life-saving support to embattled soldiers and Marines and they had done so superbly, generating over a thousand combat and combat support sorties, dropping tons of high explosive ordnance. They had navigated through some of the most challenging strait transits on the globe and conducted six port visits, including two in the Arabian Gulf itself, and in doing so had amassed an almost flawless record – only half a dozen liberty incidents had occurred, none of which had been deemed particularly significant. The flag had been shown and it had not been disgraced. There had been a few more “crunched” aircraft on the roof than he would have liked – one was too many – and they’d hit a rough patch controlling foreign object damage to the engines of embarked jet aircraft. The FOD problem had eventually been overcome through the application of “intrusive” leadership techniques. On the positive side, the crew’s promotion levels had been high, as had their re-enlistments – morale was superb. Taken as a whole, a solid record of operational achievement. Very solid. Not much longer now and it would be over. Suddenly ambivalent, he pursed his lips again at the thought – soon it would be over. It seemed so long since he had known anything else but this.
The pilot was at his shoulder saying that in his considered opinion, it was a good time to shift over to Aux Conn. The Captain concurred saying, “Officer of the Deck, make it so.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. Attention in the pilothouse, the Officer of the Deck is shifting the conn from the pilothouse to Aux Conn.”
“Bosun’s mate, aye!”
“Lee helmsman, aye!”
Aux Conn then, for the last time in his career as an aircraft carrier CO. The ship would go into a maintenance period as soon as she moored – she was as tired as any of them – and his change-of-command was just one month away. Barring an unforeseen emergency, he would never again get this ship underway. It had been the longest two years of his life, and yet somehow the shortest. Where had the time gone?
“All stop, Conn,” the pilot said.
Having first made eye contact his with his CO, the conning officer spoke into his microphone, “All engines stop.”
“All engines stop, aye,” came the answer from the lee helmsman, followed by, “Conning officer, all engines are stopped.”
“Left rudder, captain?” the CO asked the pilot.
“Yes, Captain, I think so.”
The Conning officer nodded to both of them spoke again into his mic, “Thirty degrees left rudder.”
“30 degrees left rudder, aye. Conning officer my rudder is left 30 degrees, no new course given.”
Two years in command, and how nervous he had been at the beginning of it, how carefully he had sought to hide that emotion from his crew. He had worked his entire lifetime to be here and now it was almost over. Although he had gotten a great deal more rest during the oceanic transit than he had in the cramped and bustling Arabian Gulf, the time zone changes every other day for the last two weeks had left their toll on him, especially when combined with “channel fever” – the excitement of almost being home. When this is over I will sleep for weeks, he thought. But not right away, he added with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Not right away.
“Three Two, push one,” the pilot spoke into his handheld VHF radio, and the CO looked at the plan he’d inked on the back of his hand – Tug 32 was on the port quarter, to bring her stern side to.
“Three Two, push one, captain,” acknowledged the tug’s master.
“Two Four back two,” said the pilot – port bow, the Captain noted, nodding – that would swing her head around.
“Back two, aye, captain.”
It took so long, the last hundred feet. It seemed to take an hour and there she was on the pier, and the Captain felt his heart leap into his throat – she had always been the most beautiful woman he had ever known, but he lowered his glasses again, put the emotion back as best he could. Soon. Soon.
“Three Two back one”
“Back one, captain.”
“Rudder amidships, Captain?” the pilot offered quietly.
“Make it so conn.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” and speaking into his microphone, “Rudder amidships!”
“Rudder amidships, aye!” followed by, “Conning officer my rudder is amidships, no new course given!”
She was surging slightly forward. “Shall I back engines, captain?” the CO asked the pilot.
“Back one-third for a shot, Captain,” and then speaking into his VHF, “Two two, stem on – push two.”
“All engines back one third.”
These commands were quickly answered and in a matter of moments it was time to stop the engines again, her surge checked. She crept in towards the pier, pressed by the thrashing tugs.
The ship’s XO joined him in Aux Conn with 50 feet to go. “We’re all set, Captain. Quarterdeck watches are manned and the reception team is ready in your in port cabin for the Three-Star’s visit. The hangar deck is mostly clear, but the air wing guys are waiting for liberty call like they think they’d earned it or something.”
The CO shared a brief smile with his XO – both of whom had, as airwing pilots waiting impatiently on hangar decks earlier in their careers wondered what on earth could take so long to moor a ship – before thanking him for all his hard work making the ship ready for visitors – he’d make a great CO some day. Thirty feet. Twenty-five. Now twenty.
“Captain, Boats – permission to fire shot lines forward and aft?”
“Permission granted to fire shot lines forward and aft, Boats.”
Ten feet now, and suddenly rifles cracked on the hangar bay, startling some of the family members on the pier as shot lines raced out over the heads of waiting linesmen on the pier, standing by their mooring bollards. These sailors attached messenger lines to the shot lines, which were hauled back aboard and in turn attached to the great mooring lines, each of them as thick as a man’s forearm. Those heavy cables were pulled back ashore, and the CO held his breath as the first mooring loop was passed over the bollard. “We’re moored, conn.”
The conning officer spoke into his mic once more, “Moored, Boats.”
“Moored, shift colors,” the Bosun’s Mate of the Watch cried into his 1MC announcing system. It was done. They were home.
On the jackstaff forward at the tip of the bow the jack ran up – red and white horizontal stripes and a coiled viper in the center of its field – “Don’t Tread On Me” it read, as it had read during the War of 1812, as it had again since shortly after 9/11. The Captain knew that the ensign at the mainmast was coming down, just as he knew that it was being raised aft on the flagstaff, even though he could not see either event occurring from Aux Conn. He knew because he had trained this crew, three thousand men and women and because he loved them.
“That was a good cruise, Captain,” remarked the XO, “congratulations.”
“It was a good cruise XO, welcome home. The best part is that we brought all of them back. Every last one of them.”
No mean feat to bring all of them home alive. The flight deck of an aircraft carrier was a hideously dangerous place even in peacetime, nor were a ship’s engineering spaces to be trifled with. It was altogether too rare that a ship came home unscarred by violence and loss.
Seven months he thought. Seven months and two years. He wandered back into the pilothouse and looked at his chair there on the port side of the bridge. How many hours had he spent there, awake, asleep? How many meals had he eaten in that chair? How many hushed conferences, how many critical decisions? How many near misses?
Far too many to count, and in any case it didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that his ship and crew were safely home from the uttermost parts of the world, their mission accomplished – that and the fact that his wife and children were waiting for him on the pier. He took one last look up and down the length of the naked flight deck, nodded slightly to himself. A good ship.
“I’m going below,” he announced to no one in particular.
“Captain’s off the bridge!” rang the answering shout of the bosun’s mate of the watch.