Sea Story: Unexpected Passengers in the Med

Deployment is the high point in the operational cycle of a U.S. Navy ship. All of the training, inspections, exercises, load-outs and maintenance periods are over. Deployment, with port visits to exotic foreign cities, is the reward for all that hard work and preparation.

Even so, the daily routine for most Sailors is no different on deployment. The same watches must be stood and the same jobs accomplished whether in engine rooms, Combat Information Center, bridge or galley.

But everyone is aware that the ship is now taking part in what the Navy likes to call “real world” operations, and could be called into action in support of national policy.

Although the rules have changed in this post-9/11 world, in my day deployments were six months long. Back then we didn’t have email, the Web or satellite TV, so between port visits we lived for mail delivered by helicopter, and in our off-hours we had Movie Call and the books we brought aboard.

Although deployments can be difficult to deal with — the Navy calls it “arduous sea duty” for a reason — Sailors are very resourceful and most can find some fun even while operating in the real world. Like the time we picked up one passenger but avoided another.

*  *  *  *

The inaugural deployment to the Mediterranean Sea of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) did not start as planned. Years later when I was stationed on an operational staff in the Med, I found out in-theater schedule changes are the norm, not the exception.

Shortly before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and entering the Med proper, we were notified Burke’s new schedule was to proceed directly to the Adriatic Sea to help enforce the NATO No-Fly Zone over southern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We knew Burke would fill this role at some point in the deployment because of our Aegis Combat System suite, which included a powerful air and surface radar system. But the deck had to be re-shuffled when it was discovered during the transit from the States that the ship that had been slated for the first Adriatic tour did not have enough provisions onboard to last the 35 day rotation, as had been specific in the pre-deployment instructions.

Thanks to my obsessive fear — not having enough food onboard is an offense that Supply Officers often get fired over — and my savvy senior cook, then Senior Chief Holcomb, Burke’s provisions storerooms were filled to bursting.

On the transit to the Adriatic, Burke passed through the narrow and very busy Straits of Messina separating mainland Italy from the island of Sicily. Our passage through the straits happened in the early evening and was a fairly tense affair, as we had to avoid passing ferries, fishing vessels and all manner of commercial craft.

At some point in the night, we picked up an owl.

Burke has enclosed walkways from the amidships area to the fo’c’sle on both the port and starboard sides which we called “breaks.” The owl flew into the starboard break and perched on some pipes in the overhead near the quick-acting door leading out to the fo’c’sle.

I’m not sure who first noticed the owl, but it quickly became a topic of conversation and many crewmembers had their pictures taken by buddies while standing underneath the bird in the break. We knew having a swallow land on a ship is considered a good omen — land is near — but an owl? No one was sure so we just enjoyed the novelty.

The owl stayed aboard two days and then it was gone, having flown out of the break and away from the ship in the darkness. Later, while we were on station in the Adriatic watching the skies over Bosnia, the rest of our battle group was playing hot potato with a pig.

*  *  *  *

It was common practice in those days to have arriving and departing battle group ships conduct face-to-face turnovers to ensure the most up-to-date information was exchanged. Because of our new tasking, Burke conducted an abbreviated turnover at the U.S. Naval Base in Rota, Spain, while the rest of the ships conducted their in-briefs in liberty ports like Malaga, Palma and Gibraltar.

During one of these visits, one crew — memory fails me on which — acquired a small, young pig. The why of it escapes me now as it did then, but what happened next captured the attention of every deployed sailor in the Med.

The pig began to make the rounds.

The ship that was its original home loaded the pig into a mail bag and had it delivered to another battle group ship, which was told to expect some “misrouted” mail. Not to be outdone, that ship passed the pig on to another, using the same ruse.

Deployed ships were required to submit classified daily operational reports, called OPREP-5s, listing the status of equipment, repairs, operation conducted, provisions, etc. OPREP-5 reports followed a set format for the data provided, but at the bottom there was a “notes” section which was used to pass information and ask questions in an informal way.

As the pig began to make the rounds of battle group ships over the next couple weeks, we on the Burke were able to follow it in the nightly OPREP-5 notes.

One ship commented that it had received a new Sailor onboard, a Seaman P. Pig, without a service jacket, so said ship created one. Another ship created a training jacket for the pig ­— and these folders were stuffed into the mail bag with the animal — and others informed us that the pig had completed its basic damage control or expert pistol marksmanship qualifications.

Like turning to the sports page of a newspaper, I began to start my mornings by finding out the latest news on the pig, and I wasn’t alone on the Burke. Sailors without security clearance to read an OPREP-5 wanted to know and would stop by the Supply Office to ask. Perhaps our experience was different as Burke was stuck etching a box on the surface of the Adriatic, but I don’t think so based on the variety of humorous comments in those OPREP-5s.

One night the Commanding Officer of the ship called me to his cabin to discuss what preparations would be needed for the day Burke finally got its turn with the pig. I liked this captain quite a bit, but he was like many line officers who believed anything not involving driving or fighting the ship belonged to the Supply Officer.

I gathered my chiefs and leading petty officers and we came up with some ideas, but it turned out Burke wasn’t destined to ever host the pig.

*  *  *  *

The pig’s final stop on its Med tour happened to be the same ship that Burke had to replace on short notice for Adriatic duty. Later we found out this ship was already in the battle group commander’s doghouse over not having enough provisions onboard, but the situation was made worse when complaints about mail not being delivered were received.

Seems the ship that didn’t load enough food also didn’t complete the right procedures to get its mail routed correctly, and the crew went without “Pony” — as we called it — for the first month of the deployment while other crews had received mail their first day in the Med.

So when another ship’s helicopter approached and announced it had “Pony” for the crew, the disappointment must have been extreme when the sole mailbag contained SN P. Pig, along with its various records folders.

In that night’s OPREP-5, the captain of the ship — ignoring the hints from the battle group staff that he and his unprepared ship were on thin ice —complained to the group commander in some detail about his crew’s disappointment, the waste of government resources and the utter stupidity of passing a pig around a battle group.

Like soap opera junkies following along with a Friday cliffhanger, the rest of the battle group read this tirade and wondered what would happen next.

*  *  *  *

The battle group commander’s staff also prepared a daily operational report, totaling up our individual ship reports as well as addressing the commander’s intentions and concerns. Because of the timing of these reports, we didn’t see the battle group’s response to that ship until a whole day later.

With so many years past, the exact words escape me, but I recall it went something like this:

The ongoing saga of Seaman P. Pig has provided a welcome and humorous diversion to the crews of battle group ships that were able to adapt to tempo and requirements of deployed operations. Lighten up.”

That is about as blunt as it gets when it comes to a senior officer dressing down a junior in an open forum like a battle group-wide OPREP-5 — I’ve seen just a few harsher examples but those were included in “Personal For” messages — and no doubt it stung that captain’s pride tremendously.

We waited for a response, but didn’t see anything the next day. Some of Burke’s officers figured that captain had wisely decided to cut his losses and keep quiet, but then on the second morning the ship’s OPREP-5 contained something like this:

Mail finally received; thanks to everyone who assisted in getting it to us. Crew celebrated mail delivery by holding a luau on the flight deck.”

We never heard of Seaman P. Pig again.

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