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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Plugged Ears

Tuesday, September 11, 2007
USS Cole – North Atlantic POS 42°33 N 21°35 W


The bridge comm announced, “Service action to port.” The next sound was a loud thud, followed by a white shell clattering to the deck. I felt the sounds, rather than hearing them, as, like everyone else, I had plugged my ears. The five inch gun on the fo’c’sle had just sent a 76mm round nine miles to port. The force of the recoil rocked the ship to starboard. The round was a harmless concrete dummy instead of a high explosive with a proximity or impact fuse. It was fired for practice and to test the gun. Those of my students whose ratings are gunnery or fire control are eager to explain all these details. Their faces—at least the men among them—become animated as they describe the loading mechanisms and the fact that the weapon can fire up to 80 rounds per minute.

The test had been delayed for more than an hour owing to the passage to port of a commercial freighter bound for North America. The ship was jokingly described as a “sled,” which the term for a drone towed downrange for target practice. I absorbed all this watching on the bridge after breakfast this morning, an overcast and blustery day in the North Atlantic, all four of the other ships in the squadron visible just a few hundred yards to starboard and riding the five foot waves.

Shortly after testing the gun battery, the captain ordered, “Man the boat decks.” Crew materialized below donning life vests and hard hats to prepare the RIB (for “rigid inflatable boat”) to be winched from its chocks on the starboard quarterdeck. As tiedowns were released a crewmember tested the pressure on the inflated gunwale of the boat and then comically added pressure with a hose and foot pump exactly like one you’d use for an air mattress. Soon the RIB was hanging next to the lifelines and all was in readiness for launch. Time passed. Nearly an hour later it was lowered into the choppy seas with one man at the helm and another in the bow. They did a couple of loops to test the engine and rudder, then came back alongside. The movement to starboard was deemed too great, so the RIB came around to port. And waited. Another half an hour passed. Then the folding ladder was deployed and a dozen officers in camo and body armor, sidearms strapped to their thighs, descended clumsily to sit on the gunwales. Shortly it motored off toward one of the frigates just ahead, where they were scheduled to climb back onto the deck.

The whole thing was a boarding exercise, practicing stopping and searching another vessel at sea. I wondered about the effectiveness of the process carried out in circumstances with the pressure of an emergency. I’ve seen faster action on a movie set. Perhaps it’s a fitting reminder of the level of our military preparedness on this sixth anniversary of 9/11.


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