24 Hours Aboard the USS Wasp
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am delighted to welcome as a guest columnist Kenneth G. Kraetzer, vice president, CBSI, a credit card marketing services firm in Harrison, N.Y., and a member of the Sons of the American Legion Post 50, Pelham, N.Y.
Suddenly the Navy is getting a lot of respect. President Bush startled the media, the military, and all of us by choosing Admiral William Fallon to replace General John Abazaid as head of Central Command in charge of the land war in Iraq. Now Admiral Mike Mullen has been picked to replace Marine General Peter Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Navy is the only service that projects American power by sending huge floating, fighting cities around the world.
As part of New York City Fleet Week, the Navy provided several members of the American Legion an opportunity—called an Embarkation—to spend a night aboard one of these floating cities to experience the life of its officers and crew.
Spending time visiting a U.S. warship while at sea provides a view of impressive equipment, but more importantly proud and capable people. This was an unforgettable experience.
Our trip began at a heliport in lower Manhattan for a flight to the USS Wasp (LHD-1), an amphibious assault ship built by the Ingalls Shipbuilding division of Litton in Pascagoula, Miss. She can take up to 2,000 Marines and all their equipment wherever in the world they are needed. We were asked to don orange “dry suits,” helmets and goggles for a 30-minute Navy helicopter flight to the ship, which had sailed from its home port of Norfolk, Va. We landed directly across from the ship’s superstructure and walked back under the helicopter blades to the hatch leading to the interior. There we were welcomed aboard by the very outgoing executive officer, Captain Daniel H. Fillion, who wore a bright yellow shirt with the letters XO on the back to identify him on the deck. The staterooms to which we were assigned were outfitted with double bunk beds, lots of pipes running across the ceiling, and a gas mask dispenser. It was great, just like being back in a college dorm.
The First Briefing
We were invited to sit in on a briefing to the Commanding Officer, Captain Michael D. Hawley, given by the department heads. The 90-minute meeting, which reviewed preparations for bringing the ship into New York, provided a fascinating perspective on management methods in the Navy. About 60 officers and staff attended the meeting, which was held in the wardroom, where the officers have their meals.
When Capt. Hawley came into the room, all stood until “At ease” was called. Not many CEOs receive this recognition.
A PowerPoint presentation was projected onto a screen in the middle of the room. Large navigation charts of New York Harbor were placed on a table, and a series of officers, mostly in their early thirties or younger, briefed the Captain on different areas of preparation including navigation, schedule, harbor characteristics, weather, basic security threats, warnings to pass to sailors visiting NYC, etc. The meeting was similar to those any of us might attend just before the start of an important project, just usually not in front of such a large group. The risk level is sizeable when you are steering a billion-dollar ship into an infrequently visited port.
Keeping the Presenters on Their Toes
The captain asked each speaker one question; this appeared to be his method to see if they had their responsibilities well thought out. He asked that a list of “Lessons Learned” be kept for the trip, a reminder that learning needs to be a constant effort on a ship with many young officers and crew members at work. I was pleased that New York was described as “the safest large city in America,” although the basic common sense warnings were expressed. Amazingly, navigation into the harbor and up the Hudson River still utilizes landmarks to check the ship’s position like the Coney Island “Parachute Jump,” the Statue of Liberty, and the Woolworth, Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
Attention to detail and preventing unexpected surprises was a constant theme. Quite a bit of time was spent on the anchoring process for a short stop off of Brooklyn. The soil conditions of the harbor bottom were presented and several questions were asked about how the anchor would be cleaned by hoses as it was retrieved to the ship. The captain went out of his way to ask that there be a minimum of people on the control bridge causing “noise” as the ship was navigating in the harbor and docking at the pier.
People Matter a Lot
It is obvious that people skills are emphasized in the Navy, as we were reminded throughout our stay. The crew, of course, is composed of all volunteers, and the captain asked about the plan to have at least 400 of the crew “Man the Rails” as the ship sailed into New York Harbor. “Let’s find a way to have everyone not just stand in one place for two hours,” Capt. Hawley said. “Let them move around at some point.”
Separately, several crew members pointed out that on Mother’s Day, when the ship was sailing off the U.S. coast, the captain brought the ship within 10 miles of shore so that the crew could use their cell phones to call home. Thoughtful gestures like this can go a long way to reinforce a message that the leadership cares about all on board as people.
Much is asked of sailors when at sea. Most are on 12-hour watches with no weekends off. Many of the enlistees are just out of high school, and—based on aptitude—trained to handle the very expensive equipment on board. One officer commented about the constant need to keep 18- and 19-year-olds focused on their responsibilities. It was mentioned that 30 percent of the crew is female and approximately 50% come from minority backgrounds. Bathrooms—known in the Navy as “heads”—are clearly marked as male or female.
Two Combat Information Centers that bristle with state-of-the-art electronics monitor flight operations and threats to the ship—such as inbound missiles—and operate the ship’s responses. The rooms are kept dark to aid the viewing of radar and computer screens. The ship has the ability to track and label every plane in the air within 250 miles, and can share data with other ships to expand the area they can survey. Here you see the high value of veteran sailors, often chief petty officers, supervising the work being performed by much younger sailors.
Planning the Mini-Convoy
After flight operations ended for the day, we went up on the flight deck and could see several destroyers and cruisers in the distance in each direction. At the briefing it was described that the six ships traveling to New York would sail for the night in assigned “boxes” on the ocean, several miles across, to avoid hitting each other, while still maintaining an escort position surrounding the Wasp.
We spoke with a flight operations manager, a young women with seven years Navy experience, and the mother of two children. She directs the movements of aircraft on the flight deck by issuing hand signals. Below the waist are signals given to deck handlers, and above the waist signals to pilots. Deck handlers wear different color shirts depending on their job. Several sailors mentioned that flight decks are very dangerous places where safety is constantly stressed.
Meals were good but not fancy—lasagna for dinner, eggs or cereal for breakfast and hamburgers at the next day’s lunch. A salad and fruit bar is set up for each meal, and snacks were available 24/7. At dinner we sat at a table with young sailors who turned out to be Annapolis midshipmen. One was an exchange student from Pakistan who was studying engineering and gave us a briefing on what ship propellers would be like in the future.
A Rude Awakening
Around 4 a.m., I was jolted out of a sound sleep when Capt. Hawley came on the loudspeaker, saying “Good job engineering! Everyone else go back to sleep!” It turned out that there had been engine trouble during the night and the engineers were dispatched quickly to the deepest compartments of the ship—which are not air-conditioned—to fix the problem.
Dawn was announced by a grinding sound just above our heads as helicopters were readied for morning flights by having the chains which secure them to the deck when not in use, being taken off and dragged away. That is when I realized why they issued earplugs on the ship, as a crew member explained, “It is always noisy on board.”
Entering New York Harbor
A key briefing point had been to check the clearance the 190-foot-tall ship would have when sailing under the 215-foot clearance of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The captain asked the operations officer, “Going into the harbor, do we stay on the course planned or do we follow the ship going in ahead of us?” After a bit of discussion, it was agreed they would stay on the course that had been plotted out.
At 9 a.m., just before going under the bridge, the command was called to “Man the Rails!” It is an impressive and proud moment to see the sailors and marines interspersed every five feet or so along the edge of the deck. The Navy and Marines on board are assigned to work jointly on as many projects as possible to build the working relationship between the two services. Captain Hawley directed that all the ROTC and “Sea Cadets” making the trip participate in this, certainly a way to make sailors-in-training feel part of the Navy.
It was really a privilege and a thrill to be on the flight deck as the ship entered the harbor and passed the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and lower Manhattan to arrive at the Passenger Ship Terminal at 46th Street.
When we passed Ground Zero, all of the military members on deck gave a salute at full attention. The ships that entered the harbor ahead of the Wasp had sailed further north up the Hudson River and doubled back to pass in review of the flagship. As the ships passed by each other the crew members gave a salute to each other.
The Aegis Class cruiser, USS San Jacinto, had its Texas state flag flying proudly in the wind along with a very large American flag. Overhead a series of military jets flew past in review, as well as numerous press and police helicopters. As the ship was moored to the dock, the Navy “Jack”—a flag with red and white horizontal bars and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”—was hoisted onto a staff at the bow of the flight deck.
From a citizen’s view, it is evident that the military members we met train hard, take care of the equipment taxpayers provide, and are ready to carry out dangerous missions on short notice. It is really a people business—training and integrating young men and women just six months out of high school into the demanding life of the military at sea. Morale is high, and everyone works at that.
One officer, ASC Christopher Vaino, mentioned that on 9/11 he went to the shipyard in Norfolk expecting a normal day. After watching the events on television he was told the ship on which he served was going immediately out to sea and that the Navy would fly his gear out to the ship. The crew returned home eight months later.
We gave the crew the gift of a framed picture containing a picture of our American Legion Unit presenting a large American flag on the field at Shea Stadium last year. Perhaps the next time the ship goes to sea heading towards the Persian Gulf, a small representation of our community will sail with them.
About Kenneth G. Kraetzer
Mr. Kraetzer has specialized in direct marketing of financial services for over 25 years. He is vice president of the consumer bank program management firm, CBSI, which specializes in helping consumer banks acquire and retain customers and generate fee income. He serves as an adjunct professor in the Direct Marketing Master’s Degree program at Mercy College, and is a frequent participant in events of the Direct Marketing Association and the Hudson Valley DMA.
Ken holds positions in the Sons of the American Legion in Pelham, N.Y., Westchester County, and New York state. In 2005 he initiated and organized the American Legion delegation participating in the WWII 60th Anniversary Ceremonies held at the American Military Cemeteries at Nettuno and Florence, Italy. He is past president of the Providence College Club of New York, a member of the Pelham Rotary and earned an MBA from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Ken Kraetzer can be contacted at: