Friday, June 1, 2007

A Tale of Two Ships...

...and neither of them is the Edmund FitzGerald.

OK... La Sirena asked for a story from when I was in the Marines. This one is for you, kid:

When I was in the Marine Corps, lo, those many, many years ago, I was in the Infantry, and as such, I had the high privilege of having served on a number Navy ships while deploying overseas, or being part of a readiness force, or during exercises.

One of those ships was the USS Saipan, pictured here, which we used to refer to as the "Saucepan". The Saipan was an assault helicopter carrier. She could carry 35 helicopters, and eight Harrier attack jets. She could carry 1,850 embarked Marines and associated combat equipment. Saipan was a good ship, mainly because she was large. There are certain benefits to being on a larger ship, and the primary benefit was more room. There are few things I can think of that are as unappealing as being cooped up with a bunch of sailors and marines with absolutely NO PLACE TO GO. So the Saipan was pretty good from a Marine perspective, which leads me to my main point.

The last ship that I sailed in was the USS Saginaw. The Saginaw was an LST, which means, in plain engligh, an amphibious tank landing ship. In "Navalese", LST means, Landing Ship, Tank. Amphibious ships had flatter bottoms than other fleet units for a very important reason... because they needed to get closer to beaches so guys like me could go invest the shores of a hostile place, and once we got there, kill people. The problem with flat bottom ships is that they have the tendency to roll alot. I mean ROLL. A. LOT. Our racks had safety straps in them, so you could keep from being rolled out of your rack in heavy seas.

The Saginaw, by the time I sailed in her in 1989, was 19 years old... she was getting up there in age. I don't mean any harm, here, but that ship was more of a garbage scow than a fleet unit. I'm just sayin'!

So... back to my story. I was with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines... embarked for a short duration deployment for Operation Solid Shield... which was an amphibious warfare exercise that took place off of the east coast of the United States... the ground portion included an amphibious assault at Onslow beach, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

We boarded ship at Morehead City, North Carolina, on a calm clear day. We had just gotten underway, and were in formation on the fantail of the ship, for a briefing. The seas were light, but remember what I said about flat bottom ships. They roll. Alot. All of a sudden, one of my men said: "Sergeant Gunfighter! I'm... I'm..." I turned around and saw that Private Cajuste, was looking pretty bad... I knew that he was going to be seasick, so I told him "quick, run to the rail!" When he got to the rail, I had him lay on his belly, and I told him to face out of the wind. The dummy faced the wrong way, and when he spewed, it blew back in his face! I won't tell you how much we ragged on that kid, but it was a lot.

The poor soul spent the next week in his rack, blowing mega-chunks.

The 150 embarked Marines on the ship were packed in like sardines, and our berthing areas didn't have a whole lot of ventilation. As you can see, our racks were stacked three high. Believe me when I tell you that the picture you see here looks a lot nicer than the spaces on the Saginaw. Poor Private Cajuste had the bottom rack (I had the top, NCO's always got the tops, they had more room), so he could roll out and get to the head to puke.

For the next few months, back at Camp LeJeune, every time there were a few of the guys standing around with Cajuste, we would slowly rock from side to side, just to see him look like he was going to hurl. It was cruel, I know, but lots of fun. He was a good kid though. He worked hard and never complained about anything.

Here is a picture of what the berthing spaces look like in today's Navy. Note the lockers under each rack, the lights, the curtains... man, that's high living! During my time on the Saginaw, the machines that gave us fresh water broke twice (in a ten day period), during which time, were weren't allowed to shower, shave, or do laundry. As you can probably guess, it got more than a little rank in a short amount of time.

As I said before, the Saginaw was gettin' old, and shortly after the Gulf War, it was clear to the Navy that the old gray mare just wasn't what she used to be. It was time for her to be de-commissioned.

HMAS Kanimbla

Kanimbla has given the Aussies good service so far. Her modifications included two decks (forward and aft) for helicopter landing, as well as hangar space for three Seahawk helicopters. In addition, Kanimbla can carry 400 embarked troops. Since she is still an amhpib (we called them "Gators"), I am sure that she still rolls alot when that seas get heavy... but hey, that's life at sea. As I write this, the Kanimbla has served at least one tour of duty in support of Australian troops involved in operations in Iraq, and was involved in relief operations after the Tsunami a few years ago.

My wish for her, her crew, and all who sail in her, is a fair wind and a following sea.

I left the Marine Corps in 1989... Private Cajuste was a Corporal when he served with distinction in combat in Panama, and later in the Persian Gulf war.



Jenn in Holland said...

Oh, the rolling and the spewing! Oooh-ICK!
When I lived in Long Beach I had a chance to tour a couple of the big ships at the naval yard. Incredible I say.
I really can't imagine being aboard for days and days and days though. The few minutes we walked through and around those tiny spaces, was enough for me.
Great post. I love your stories.

soccer mom in denial said...

In Philly we toured a submarine. I cannot fathom life on either a ship or sub. And your recount of life without showers. Eek!

Gunfighter said...

Cannot "fathom"

Well done!

La Sirena said...

Thanks for the story -- vomit, oceans, rolling, and recycling...hooray! Poor Private C. -- sometimes those nausea episodes are hard to shake.

My friend Pauly was in the Marines about the same time as you. You should check out his blog, as he definitely has a fresh perspective.

I think I could survive life on a ship for a while, but I'm pretty sure living in a sub would drive me permanently insane.

Lawyer Mama said...

Thanks for that! But I think I threw up a little in my mouth when you were describing that poor boy spewing chunks!

Melanie said...

wonderful post. Though I do have to comment on your picture of today's berthing.

I've been on several different ships and NONE of the berthing was like that! Wow would that have been nice!

1)All of them were battleship grey. Paint peeling. Chips and nicks out of them so theres sharp edges. Half of the lockers don't close right.

2)I've only seen the lights on one of the ships. You have to pay for the lightbulb that goes into and its usually placed at the foot of your rack, rather then the head!! Dumb!

3)That fancy little curtain that is in the picture.. Yeah, never seen one that nice! All the ones I've seen are ratty and look like they've been eaten by moths. All army green. And you have to pay so much a week or month for those too!!

I'd really like to know what ship that picture came from... If you happen to know!

Gunfighter said...


I think it is from one of the WASP class new amphibs.

Thw WASP class started commissioning in the early or late 90's, I think.

Melanie said...

I'll have to ask the one guy I know that was on the WASP about it! I've just never seen any like that!

The Hilton tribe said...

I was on the Duluth, Denver, and the Pearl Harbor.. Without researching it, I think the Duluth is older than your rig, but just as *&#$^%. -Good descriptives.
-SSGT. H Sends

pat neleski said...

I read your blog and found the information about racks interesting!! My husband and I have a little invention that makes life better and little by little over the past three years, we've had the most wonderful support from folks from Sasebo to the Persian Gulf-- we make NavyRackPacks, a canvas, heavy duty rack storage curtain with pockets to view DVDs that can be moved from ship to ship. Here's our link:
We'd be honored if you would take a look!!
Pat Neleski

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to mention my husband is a submariner and we came up with these when he was on the Minneapolis-St. Paul-- Pat.