An unfinished date: cold, dark and quiet in the South Atlantic

In 20 years of Navy service as an enlisted Sailor and commissioned officer, I held many different jobs. By far my favorite was writing the operational schedule for up to five logistics ships — oilers and ammunition and provisions haulers ­­­— while assigned to the staff of Task Force 63 in Naples, Italy.

The three most important tools needed for that job were a naval chart of the Mediterranean Sea and vicinity, 11×17 cardboard schedule forms — like a crossword puzzle, pencil use only — and the telephone.

The chart was under a large piece of glass on my desk and the schedule cards were usually in use during working hours, but when I went home for the day they were always placed in the center of my desk so the duty officer could find them. The trick with using the chart was taught to me by my predecessor in the job, as I’m sure he was taught by the one who preceded him. By spreading apart the fingers and thumb of my hand, I could use the distance between the tip of my thumb and little finger as about one days steaming time.

The hand trick was not exact, but it was close enough to put our ships — providers of food, supplies, ammo and fuel — in proximity to the customer ships, the aircraft carriers, destroyers amphibs and cruisers of the Sixth Fleet and our NATO allies. ‘Walking’ my hands across the chart I built and re-built and re-built again the monthly and weekly logistics schedule. Each day I studied a huge volume of message traffic to determine where the customers would be and what they would require in the way of logistics.

All ships received a provisions resupply once per month. Fuel requirements varied: small combatants needed to refuel every three to five underway days, amphibious ships every seven days. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers still needed aviation fuel once every three to five days of flight operations.

Our scheduling philosophy was like a dating service: we put the provider and customer in the same piece of ocean, and let the two of them work out the specifics for the event such as rendezvous point and time. On occasion I calculated wrong, or wasn’t aware of an issue, and the ‘date’ had to be rescheduled or called off. My provider ships always had another customer to meet, so one small alteration in the schedule often had a cascading affect — hence the reason why schedules were written in pencil and for the long hours we worked and gallons of coffee we drank.

*  *  *

Most of the logistics ships I scheduled were United States Naval Ships (USNS) part of the Military Sealift Command. From the MSC website: “Military Sealift Command operates approximately 110 noncombatant, civilian-crewed ships that replenish U.S. Navy ships, conduct specialized missions, strategically preposition combat cargo at sea around the world and move military cargo and supplies used by deployed U.S. forces and coalition partners.”

USNS ships had a civilian master and crew for operations, engineering and cargo movement, and a military detachment (MILDET) that took care of classified material and communications. In theory my point of the contact on the ship was the Navy officer in charge of the MILDET, but in reality I worked directly with the masters, who were highly experienced sailors. If a master told me something could not be done, I knew better than to ever question it.

Although USNS ships could receive Navy message traffic, our primary means of communication was by satellite phone. By the end of my tour in 1998 email was beginning to be used more and more for routine matters, but it was an unclassified-only medium while our satellite phones had secure capability.

The cost of using those phones in those days was extremely steep because we used civilian satellites, but in my capacity as a scheduler I was given free rein. I was often on the phone for several hours a day, working out problems in the operational schedule with various ships, staffs and support activities.

Several officers on our staff were issued secure phones to be installed in their residences — in those days there was no large centralized base in Naples as there is today, so we all lived “out in town” — but I wasn’t one of them. Still, I gave all of my ships both my home and cell phone numbers. The duty watch officer of our staff could be an engineering chief petty officer, a line officer or a diver, so my ships were told to call me directly if they didn’t get a “warm and fuzzy” feeling after talking to them.

*  *  *

Midway through my tour at CTF-63 most of the staffs based in the Naples suburb/neighborhood of Agnano moved to the airport. In Agnano the staffs including CTF-63 occupied a very old leased multi-story building that at one point may have been an apartment tower but had been falling apart for years before I got there in 1995.

The building we moved into at the airport was a purpose-built command center, hardened for nuclear blasts and complete with all the latest security and communications gizmos. The move-in went surprisingly well, considering all the things that could have gone wrong with moving fifteen or so staffs, hundreds of people, and tons of files and records, most of which were highly classified.

But while the radios, internet and computer networks seemed to work fine, the connection to the commercial phone grid didn’t. Sometimes my wife would call from our house in a Naples suburb, and the phone would ring on her end but not mine. It didn’t happen often, and was quickly fixed, but not before it became a problem for me.

*  *  *

Many of the officers and chiefs on my staff used duty nights as a chance to work on low-priority projects, I avoided this because my duty days always seemed to revolve around a crisis (See “Standing the Watch: A(nother) Long Night In Naples”) and I never got to work on anything else.

It was probably close to midnight, or shortly after. I remember most of what I needed to do for both my work and duty was done and I was just waiting for the last message run of the night before turning in to the duty officer bunkroom for a couple hours of sleep.

I heard the door to the communications office across the hall open and the duty Radioman, a Petty Officer Third Class, stuck her head into the logistics office: “Your wife is on the duty phone line, do you want me to transfer the call in here?”

Instantly scared that something had happened to her or our kids, I picked up the phone. Nothing was wrong at home, but she told me one of my ships has called our house because they couldn’t get through to the staff. In fact, my wife said she couldn’t get through on my office phone, and tried several times before the duty line was answered.

Why was the ship — which was assigned to support a Marine Amphibious Group standing off the coast of West Africa to support a potential embassy evacuation in the midst of a civil war — calling?

“They said to tell you they’ve lost all power and are floating cold, dark and quiet in the South Atlantic. They want you to call them back as soon as you can.”

*  *  *

Sure enough, earlier in the day in the message traffic I read that one of the ship’s three diesel generators was out of commission. This degraded the ship’s readiness condition but not excessively so. Only one generator was needed for operations.

Two days out from Cape Town, South Africa making the run north to the Marine group the on-line generator suddenly stopped, which should have led to the standby generator kicking in. Should have, except the standby wouldn’t start and the ship lost power and the engines quit, leaving a U.S. military vessel adrift in the darkness of the South Atlantic.

The MILDET officer in charge rigged a battery to the satellite phone and tried to contact the staff, but the phone just rang and rang. They tried a few times, realized something was wrong and instead called my house and woke up my wife, who then spent a half hour or so trying to get in touch with me in the brand-new, multi-million dollar, ultra secure command and control building.

Within seconds of hanging up from my wife I was talking to the master of the ship, who briefed me on what had happened. He didn’t have a lot of answers about how the generators had failed, but he had some ideas about getting at least one of them fixed. The master was concerned about conserving the temporary battery hooked up to the phone and I had a whole lot of reporting to do up the chain, so we agreed I would call again in an hour.

After making calls to my commodore, my department head and the Sixth Fleet duty officer, I quickly wrote up a classified situation report message that would notify the Marine Amphibious Group, U.S. European Command, Military Sealift Command, the Navy Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By the time I was done with that it was time to call the ship again. The master told me no progress had been made on repairs, but he had something new to report. The ship was adrift in the middle of the West African shipping lanes, so even though there was good visibility by moonlight he had posted on the main deck men with flashing lights and flares to warn any passing ships.

Shortly before I called, the Master said his lookouts reported seeing a ship that they attempted to signal with flashing light. This ship did not reply, but instead began to slowly circle the drifting oiler. The master told me he thought it may be pirates or an enterprising salvage ship hoping to lay claim to a prize if his crew were to abandon ship. The master had his crew break out fire hoses in the event they needed to repel boarders.

*  *  *

Telling the master I hoped the fire hoses wouldn’t be necessary, I asked him what the plan for repairing a generator entailed. He told me the first generator that went down had a broken part that they intended on taking off one of the other two. They were unable to find out exactly why the latter two generators had failed, but they knew the part would fix the first one.

Over the next hour or so, I took phone calls from duty officers at staffs throughout the Navy and NATO chain of command, asking for updates. As part of the Amphibious Group providing support for the potential evacuation of a U.S. embassy, my ship’s plight had become of interest to a lot more people than had it just been steaming around the Med.

In the middle of that I also got a call from the Military Sealift Command on the East Coast of the U.S., wanting an update on the repair plan. When I explained to them what the master intended, I was told in no uncertain terms by the maritime engineers at MSC headquarters that the ship was not to execute that plan because it was unsafe, impractical and likely would not fix the problem.

I immediately called the master, who told me the MSC staff didn’t know what he knew, and the repair plan he laid out would get one generator up which would allow the ship to limp back to Cape Town for further repairs. He acknowledged it would take some “inspired” rigging to get the part, which was larger than a standard refrigerator and much heavier, from one engineering space to another including going up a ladder, but it could be done safely in complete darkness as the powerless ship rolled with the sea.

*  *  *

I worked for many officers in the Navy who told me to go with my first instincts, that unconsciously or instinctively most people know the right thing to do when decisions are required quickly. Bearing that in mind, I asked the master how long he thought the repair would take and was told a couple hours to move the part — work that had already started — and an hour or so to install it.

I then told the master I had a lot to do — regardless of how quickly his ship could be repaired, I would need to send another ship out of the Med to support the Marines, which would then impact the schedule of every other deployed ship, customers and providers — and that I hoped he was right.

Shortly after that Military Sealift Command called again to find out if I had been able to contact the ship again to order them to not execute the repair. I told them I was working on it — just have a few other people interested in the ongoing crisis, thank you very much — but that when I talked to the master earlier he expressed complete confidence that the repair could be done safely and would work.

The experts at MSC told me the master was wrong, and that it was vital that I relay their order to him not to attempt the repair. I told them I’d get on it as soon as possible, but as the ship was adrift and powerless, communications were iffy.

I spent the next several hours dodging the MSC folks while taking phone calls from other duty officers and my own boss and commodore, and trying to figure out how to make the logistics schedule work with two providers far outside the Med Sea. Eventually the experts at MSC figured out that they had the same phone number for the ship that I had, and they bypassed me and talked directly to the master.

By that point the repair was pretty far along, so when the MSC folks told the master they were in the process of chartering a Cape Town tug to steam out to take his ship under tow, the master told them to save their money. They ordered him to stop the repair; the master replied that he was the man on the spot and would take full responsibility. Not for the first (or last) time, it was implied in a later phone call from MSC that my career was in jeopardy.

The adrift ship and I talked about every hour or so — at one point a new battery had to be located and connected to the phone — with the master updating me on the progress of detaching and moving the part. The mystery ship circling my ship remained where it was, still refusing to communicate but also coming no closer. When the sun came up the master told me he could see it was an ocean-going tug, so he assumed the crew was simply biding their time and calculating how much money they would make off the millions of gallons of fuel oil the USNS ship carried.

*  *  *

By the time the next day’s duty officer arrived (it was Saturday morning) the part was in place and being connected. After being relieved of duty I stayed at my desk working on schedule revisions, answering phone calls, writing status report messages and monitoring the ship’s repair long after I might normally have gone home.

One of the last things I did that day before finally going home to sleep was call the experts at Military Sealift Command. I let them know the ship had completed the repair they said was impossible and was back underway on its own power, headed to Cape Town.

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