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ARTICLES – Aboard USS PROVIDENCE During the Iraqi War

Bob Hamilton is a reporter for The New London Day covering defense issues.

here was no hesitation or confusion as the order came over the IMC, “Man battle stations, Strike.” For months, the crew had practiced the procedures, so everyone knew where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do.

“One minute to launch,” declared the officer watching the countdown. “Ship ready,” said the navigator. “Mission ready,” the executive officer pronounced. A short time later, the captain gave the order, “Launch.” There is a rumble that you can feel through your shoes, a hissing and then a slight over pressure in your ears, as the weapons system vents, and the ship rocks slightly back and forth as more than two tons of missile exits a torpedo tube and speeds towards Iraq.

The navigator keeps the periscope trained on the Tomahawk that is racing away. “Booster separation,” he said as the first stage capsule dropped away and plummeted to the sea. Then, “transition to cruise.” The first missile was followed in quick succession by another, and then two from the vertical launch system, which rock the boat up and down as they are pushed into the air to begin their journey.

“Way to go, men,” CDR Jonathan H. Kan says softly over the whispers in the control center. Minutes later, he gets on the ship’s communications network: “Well done to get us to this point. The missiles transitioned to cruise, so they’re on their way.” The ship returns to its normal routine; less than an hour later, the wardroom sits down to dinner, to an AC/DC song, “Dirty Deeds,” playing on the wardroom audio system. Talk turns to how long the war might last.

Down in the torpedo room, the weapons handling crew has managed to come up with procedures that allow them to reload weapons in half the time of the fleet standards. The young men, volunteers drawn from several different divisions on the boat, came up with a suggestion for a cruise T-shirt: a picture of a shark labeled “Providence” shaking a Tomahawk missile in his fist over the Baghdad skyline, and the caption, “We deliver on time the next one’s free!’

“We’ve worked very hard to be a part of this operation,” Kan said later in his stateroom, as he waited to see if there would be any more strike orders that night. He described how the PROVIDENCE crewmen had to cut short their training to deploy I 0 days early so the boat could be in place in time. The typical “last weekend” family plans all had to be abandoned, but there has been no grumbling.

“They have a lot to be proud of, and you can be sure we will keep reminding them of that, because the achievement today was not trivial,” Kan said.

Over the next four days PROVIDENCE would launch all its Tomahawk cruise missiles into Iraq, in several waves. Each time a countdown began, more than two dozen people crammed into a control room that would be crowded with half that number. Anyone not assigned a duty during battle stations crowded into the crew’s mess, where they watched the launches on the Perivis system that feeds live video from the periscope.

With that deployment, PROVIDENCE entered the history books as the first submarine to fire land-attack missiles on consecutive deployments, the first submarine to go “Winchester” (the term for firing all of its ordnance) in the Red Sea during the war, and the first U.S. nuclear submarine ever to bring a journalist into combat.

As a staff reporter for the New London Day in Connecticut, I have been covering submarines for the better part of a decade, and have gotten underway numerous times, occasionally for several days, so I have some understanding of the boats and their crews. But I also know that the submarine force guards its secrets carefully, and when the Pentagon announced during the buildup to the war that it would embed reporters with the troops, I never expected that would include putting a reporter on a submarine.

But in late February 2003, I got a call from CDR Bob Ross, then the public affairs officer for the Sixth Fleet. After an exchange of small talk he got to the reason for his call: if he could arrange it, would I fly to the Mediterranean Sea to deploy aboard a Groton-based submarine that was going into combat? “Yes” does not begin to describe my response, but I also figured that as he ran it up the chain of command, someone somewhere would nix the idea. But Ross fell back on his favorite expression-if you don’t ask, the answer is automatically no-we both got busy on our respective ends.

The original plan was for me and a photographer, Tim Cook, to go to Crete and hook up with USS TOLEDO some time in mid-March. Instead, I got a frantic call from Ross the morning of I 0 March, informing me that I had to be on a flight out of Boston that afternoon to Cyprus.

Cook and I made a mad dash for the airport, and after a transatlantic flight and a few hours in a Cypriot hotel, we were boarding a Seahawk helicopter for a hop out to USS WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and then a small-boat transfer to PROVIDENCE.

I would learn later that when Turkey decided not to support the war, the Navy choreographed a massive movement of naval forces out of the Mediterranean, and into the Red Sea. We had to rush because once the ships entered the Suez Canal, the door would slam shut on our opportunity to join them. I was still under the impression that we would be operating in the Med, though, until I had been aboard about five minutes, and the captain announced that we were heading for “the Ditch.”

On 11 September 2001, PROVIDENCE was on its way home from the Persian Gulf when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Without waiting for orders the captain, then CDR Scott Bawden, turned the ship around and headed back to its station. It fired the opening shots in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But many of the men who led it into combat two years ago were gone when it headed for the Red Sea this year.

“Since our last deployment probably 30 percent of the crew has turned over,” Kan said. “Look at our chiefs-none in engineering were on the last deployment, none in weapons, and in navigation only one of them made the trip. Three chiefs out of 16 on board made the last deployment. And in the wardroom, only five of the 15 made it. That’s the challenge-you get all these new guys in and not much time at sea until you deploy, so how do you get them ready.”

Not that he was worried about their capability. Kan, the squadron staff, the Commander, Naval Submarine Forces have all put the ship through a series of rigorous pre-deployment inspections and exercises to make sure it is ready to go into harm’s way.

“The certification process is about a billion times harder than the actual deployment,” Kan said. “If you can get through the certification, you can get through the deployment.”

On the way across the Atlantic the crew trained continuously in strike operations, a series of 36-hour exercises in which they simulated combat, with a special emphasis on reloading the torpedo tubes. The crew realized that combat assignments are parceled out based on who is ready to fire, and they didn’t want to miss a single opportunity. For more than 80 hours the reload team members man their posts, grabbing a few minutes of sleep on the hard, cold, polished steel weapons racks when there is a lull-walking back to their racks would waste precious minutes that could be spent sleeping.

But there are also drills to handle problems with the propulsion plant, or to fight fires and flooding. The ship must be prepared for strike operations, but it must also be prepared for a myriad of problems that can arise during combat. There is no margin for error on an operational submarine.

The men in the torpedo room are convinced theirs is the most important part of the ship. Everything else is just to get the weapons to the launch basket on time. But everyone holds the same point of view-engineering crewmen say the ship wouldn’t move without them, navigation team members say the ship would get lost if they don’t do their job, and so on. Each of the young men describes the importance of his job with fierce pride, and considerable expertise.

“The American public is getting their money’s worth out of these sailors,” Kan said. Most operate four hours on, eight off watch section, but even when they are not on watch they are cleaning, repairing equipment, studying for their next qualification or advancement examination or taking care of personal chores such as laundry. The captain said it’s important that officers and senior enlisted people keep a close watch on the crew.

“You may be setting a guy up not to get any sleep for a day and a half, and they won’t say anything to you, they’ll just try to work through it,” Kan said. “So it becomes a big obligation on our part to make sure we’re looking out for them.”

But the reality is that submariners often get by with too little sleep. When a ship has sufficient notice of a strike, the captain and executive officer try to carve a little time out of the schedule to allow the men to grab a few extra hours sleep.

But PROVIDENCE gets only a few hours notice for its first strike, so there is only time to remove the temporary berths from the torpedo room and ready it for combat. Mattresses, sea bags and metal bed trays are moved half the ship’s length and up one deck, bucket brigade style. There are a few skinned knuckles as a result of the haste, but the process goes even quicker than the 45-minute goal the captain had set.

LTJG Will Wiley had worked a 24-hourday on the Wednesday before the strike because of the vagaries of the watch schedule, some extra duty and some training that took place during what was supposed to have been his off time.

When the Captain asked him if he had managed to sneak away to his bunk, Wiley replied with a grin that he had managed to squeak in five hours of sleep earlier, and he was ready for anything. Before the day was out he would put that to the test.

On the night of the first strike, the mood in the control room was muted. A few enlisted men sat with their hands folded. Officers who were not taking part in the countdown stood unmoving and unspeaking. The men standing watch did not take their eyes from their computer screens.

The Perivis shows the first missile away, a vertical launch, the white glare of its rocket motor lighting the Red Sea like a small sun, and the drops of ocean water on the periscope sparkle like diamonds with the sudden illumination, then the missile bursts though the launch cloud, and within five seconds is a mere pinprick of light. The second follows, and then the two torpedo tube launches. Their rocket motors light off under the water, so the first visible sign of the launch is a bright green glow, right before the missile bursts Through the surface and zooms away. Several of the men remark on the irony that a weapon launch should be so beautiful.

“You get that rush of adrenaline when you see them break the surface. and then kind of stand there transfixed as they fade off into the distance,” said Electronics Technician 211Ci Class Peter J. Koester. “I’ve seen videos, but it doesn’t really capture what we saw and felt tonight. There’s something different about being here live.”

On the first night of combat operations, the captain is moving with practiced ease from station to station, offering a word of encouragement here, a hand on the shoulder there.

“The adrenalin was high,” Kan said later. “The hardest thing to do was to keep everybody calm, and following the game plan. They were very prepared, and able to handle the job, but I sensed the adrenaline and wanted to take the time to talk to them, to calm them down.”

It is a mantra among sailors that you train as you fight, and fight as you train. That philosophy pays big dividends in the opening hours of the war, as the procedures were carried out flawlessly.

Chief Hospital Corpsman Michael “Doc” Shoulberg noted that the long-distance combat of this war was easier than his first experience, going into Iraq with a Marine division in Desert Storm in 1991.

“Last time was from 25 yards, and they were shooting back,” Shoulberg said.

The following night, a Friday. PROVIDENCE fired three waves of missiles, as it combined with other submarines, destroyers and cruisers for a major offensive. The captain was moving around control a lot less, monitoring more of the activity from a distance.

But Kan cannot relax completely. There are other warships nearby-a Tomahawk going up from a destroyer 30 miles away looks like a Roman candle rising into the sky. And there are merchants to worry about as well. One container ship is several miles away as PROVIDENCE launches, but it turns quickly and the master of the vessel gets on the radio to remind PROVIDENCE in a rather frantic voice that he is nearby. Within a few minutes the ship has resumed its course and speed.

In between strikes, the captain ordered “battle rats,” sausage. shredded pork and cheese, with some hefty rolls to make a sandwich, the kind of food that you can wolf down when you have a few minutes away from your job.

The officers were in the wardroom discussing how long it might take to reload the tubes that had been fired, when the weapons officer, LT Eric Svensson, stuck his head in the door, a big grin on his face.

“Permission to spin up tubes?” Svensson asked.

“No way,” the captain responded, an exaggerated look of disbelief on his face, after giving the clock on the wall a quick glance. “That’s got to be a record.”

The strikes continue Saturday, and into Sunday morning. At one point the captain realized the executive officer, LCDR Thad E. Nisbett, has been too long without sleep, and he encourages him to hit the rack. Before Nisbett can make it to his stateroom, however, the captain gets word that another launch has been ordered.

“That’s the key, send the XO to his rack, and we get a tasking,” Kan said with a chuckle. He picks up the sound powered phone next to his seat at the head of the table, and speaks into it. “This is the captain. Battle stations, strike.”

Sunday morning, as the number of unfired missiles continues to dwindle, some of the officers wonder what they will do when the magazines are empty.

“Let’s go deep and sleep,” suggests LT Josh Powers with a grin.

“How about some engineering drills?” counters the engineer, LCDR Matt Mulcahy.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Powers responds, grinning even wider.

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