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An American in the Basement
The Betrayal of Captain Scott Speicher and the Cover-up of His Death
By Amy Waters Yarsinske
Trine Day LLC Copyright © 2013 Amy Waters Yarsinske
All rights reserved.
Pilots stood around uneasily on the afternoon of January 16, 1991, anxious about mass preflight briefings aboard the Saratoga. The carrier's aircrew was on edge; no one was comfortable with what was about to happen. This was not a routine mission. As they waited to hear from the Saratoga's battle group commander, some of them prayed quietly, others talked nervously in small groups. Others, still, could think of nothing else but families and friends back home. All of them knew their mission down to the last detail.
Iraq had let the January 15 deadline to withdraw from Kuwait expire. America was going to war. While no one knew what to expect that night, they were ready as they could ever be. The few combat-seasoned aviators aboard the carrier felt the same roiling emotions as nugget pilots (trainees) on their first cruise. In eight hours or less, they'd all be flying into combat. Then Rear Admiral George N. "Nick" Gee started to speak. They listened somberly.
"Gentlemen," Gee brought them to attention, "George Bush has called on us to do our duty, to liberate Kuwait, and that liberation is going to start tonight. There are several types of people back in the United States right now who will be watching as your bombs start dropping over Baghdad. It's going to be just about time for the evening news back home," he told them. "There's going to be a guy sitting in the bar with long hair and a beard, an old hippie type, who is drinking beer and watching TV, and he's going to go, 'Fucking A, those are my boys, god damned U.S.' There are going to be moms out there that are crying and saying, 'That's my boy.' They are going to be watching you. You need to do this well. This will be with you for the rest of your lives. You will remember this night forever, so you want to do the best job you possibly can because if you don't, you will regret it until you die." Everyone listened. No one was reassured.
Lieutenant Barry W. "Skull" Hull felt his mouth go bone dry. The Strike Fighter Squadron Eighty-One (VFA-81) Sunliner pilot wasn't alone. "The very first thing we did was get a time hack so we'd all be on exact time," Hull recalled later. "We're synchronized. In thirty seconds it's going to be twenty-four after the hour, then ten, nine, eight and then Gee called 'Hack!'" The atmosphere remained somber until the mass briefing ended. Then the squadrons went to their own ready rooms for individual mission briefs.
Hull was joined in the VFA-81 Sunliners ready room by Lieutenant Commanders Scott "Spike" Speicher and Tony "Bano" Albano, Commander Michael T. "Spock" Anderson, and Lieutenant Philip "Chauncey" Gardner, all of them preparing to climb into their F/A-18 Hornets and roar off the carrier Saratoga in the Red Sea, across Saudi Arabia toward Baghdad. Thus began Operation Desert Storm. They would be joined by scores of other navy pilots from the Saratoga and other aircraft carriers poised to launch aircraft at Iraq on the first strike of a new kind of air war. In the planning room, the Sunliners reviewed the timing of the attack, their flight paths, and targets.
Speicher wasn't originally scheduled to fly that night. Squadron commander Spock Anderson tapped him as the airborne spare. He would fly in and take over if any of the other Hornets were forced back to the Saratoga's flight deck with a mechanical failure. The spare had to know everybody's mission. But the role was not enough for Speicher. He went to Anderson and told him he didn't want to be the spare, to be the one who'd have to turn around and come back to the ship without firing a shot. His argument was convincing. Anderson relented and put Speicher on the first strike.
The spare position then went to Hull, but he balked, too. "I go, 'Wait a minute, I don't want to be the spare either.' It's not like I was some sort of big hero and the truth is, it's not like Spike was being a hero," said Hull. "I wanted to be in there with my buddies." The truth is, so did Scott Speicher. To resolve the predicament with Anderson, Hull went looking for Spike. "The skipper didn't like me very much," Hull confessed later, so he figured if he got Spike's help smoothing it over, he might get put on the first strike, too. "I said, 'Look, what you did for yourself, you gotta do it for me, too.' Spike goes, 'Yeah, sure.'" To ensure Spike's success with Anderson, Hull told him that he'd get Lieutenant (junior grade) Conrad "Banker" Caldwell to fill in as the spare, "and I guarantee you," he told Spike, "Banker will know every single mission." And he did. Hull was back on the mission. Later, he thanked Spike.
Emotions ran high before the first strike launched from the deck of the Saratoga. In a letter home, written just days before the mission, Barry Hull told his family that Saddam didn't appear to have his bags packed for his trip back to Iraq. The dictator wasn't leaving Kuwait willingly. "I suppose it could be arranged to send him [Saddam] back, maybe inside his own personal bag," he quipped. The Sunliners, without question, were ready to go into harm's way. Hull was confident that the big picture was understood and that they'd be able to focus on the details he and his fellow Sunliners would soon encounter in combat. "Occasionally we have the luxury to sit back and think, 'The plans are ready, now what else do I need to do?'"
He ran down the list of tasks all the Sunliners had to accomplish as Saddam's deadline to withdraw from Kuwait drew closer. "We've sanitized our flight suits. That means all nametags and patches are removed. We wear our dog tags. Personal weapons are carried."
His survival gear was so full of water that, "You guessed it," he exclaimed, "my Oreos got smushed and I had to eat them and restock. Oh, well." Wallets contained only the pilots' military identification cards, family pictures, cash and credit cards. "The SAR [search and rescue] guys tell us if we go down, we might be able to rent a car and drive out. Weird, huh?" Hull also carried sunscreen, Chapstick and, of course, his Vuarnets. "Would you rather be seen in the desert in Ray-Bans or Vuarnets?" he asked his sister. "One of our maintenance troops gave me a raghead hat, the turban thing, in case I need to go incognito."
Captain Dean M. "Milo" Hendrickson, Speicher's carrier air wing commander, was one of only a few pilots on board Saratoga who'd been around long enough to have seen sustained combat. "You're going to come back," he warned pilots on the first strike, "Then you're going to look around ... and one of you won't be here." Most of the Sunliners had no idea that this warning might actually come true.
The Sunliners' ready room was six decks down on the Saratoga, so the Hornet pilots used the escalator to get topside with the sixty pounds of flight gear each carried. In the same letter, Hull described the feeling of seeing the hatch leading outside. "A few deep breaths are taken at this point," he wrote home, "because I'm about to enter another world. It's dark and dangerous, and if you're not careful it will kill you." The hatch to the flight deck was always pitch dark and seemed to suck the light out of Hull's flashlight. The hatch led to a catwalk, down a small flight of steps below the flight deck. Past the catwalk pilots stepped among fueling hoses, extra catapult wires and chocks and chains and yellow gear. Looking into the lights, only the shadowy outline of men moving quickly back and forth to aircraft could be made out. Looking away from the lights, there was the reflection off goggles and more darkness.
During a combat dry-run just a couple of days before the big show, there had been several hundred men topside. Hull had to find a man with a Sunliner patch to tell him where his Hornet was on the flight deck. "He knows what I want," Hull wrote home, "and just points without my asking." The twenty- to thirty-knot wind bent over pilots and deck crew as they worked to get planes on and off the deck. "Your flashlight gives you a small tunnel vision to see clearly," he continued, "and all the rest is noise and shadows. No faces, just helmets and goggles." Hull had once before gone through an entire night launch and not known who his plane captain was; it was too dark on the flight deck to identify anyone and too loud to talk.
Before Hull could reach his jet, a Hornet slammed onto the deck fifty feet to his left and startled him. Maybe the Hornet's pilot had boltered; he gave everyone a fantastic light show as his tailhook dragged down the deck at 150 knots spewing sparks and lighting up the night before pulling up and coming around again. All over the deck ordnancemen loaded and unloaded carts stacked with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and smart bombs. Steam from the carrier's catapults blew by, sometimes completely enveloping the men standing in it. As the steam cleared, Hull shone his light onto the Hornet he was looking for, and it was then he spotted his plane captain, who would get him ready and off the deck.
A half-hour before launch, the air boss came up on the loudspeaker: "Gentlemen, it's time to get into the proper flight deck uniform, sleeves rolled down, helmets on and buckled, goggles pulled down, life vests on and securely fastened. Let's check around the go birds for FOD [foreign object debris]. Whenever you're ready, gentlemen, let's crank 'em up, crank the go birds." No matter how many times a navy pilot hears those words, he still gets goose bumps.
Mounting his Hornet and settling in, Hull looked back on the ladder to see his nineteen-year-old plane captain close behind, ready to strap him in. With a quick word or two, Hull's plane captain wished him a safe flight and scampered down to do one last preflight check of the Hornet. From his cockpit perch, Hull could just make out the outline of the plane captain and the unmistakable glow of the blue wands in his hands. As the Hornet's engines fired up, the canopy came down with a thud, then slid smoothly forward and locked into place.
Fifteen minutes passed before Hull was ready to give a thumb's up. The chocks and chains were removed from his Hornet, nose wheel steering engaged, and he armed his ejection seat. Taxi directors in yellow shirts came out to guide Hull's Hornet to the catapult, while he ran down takeoff checks and rogered the weight board, a process that calculates the gross weight of the Hornet, including ordnance, fuel, gear, and pilot weight so the correct thrust can be applied to the catapult launch. Hull spread the wings of the Hornet and made certain they locked into place. One last big turn and the jet was on the catapult. Hull described the rhythm and cadence of the men on the deck. Ten men moved swiftly under the Hornet to do final checks and hook up the launch bar; the taxi director's small, precise signals kept everyone in check. Ordnancemen armed the Hornet's weapons, then passed the plane back. All stations checked "go."
Hull's heart was pounding. The yellow shirt checked with the catapult officer, and Hull got the signal to run up the Hornet's engines. As he released the brakes, the hold-back keeping him stationary on the catapult, Hull added full power. His head tilted back and the lights came on – the nighttime salute. The catapult officer touched the deck, signaling launch, and five seconds later Hull's Hornet lurched forward. Within two seconds Hull was doing over 180 miles per hour, pinned to the seat. Hurtled off the end of the flight deck into the air, Hull said, "You better believe most of us tap afterburner." A few nights later he and his squadron mates would roar off the Saratoga's deck for the first air strike of the Persian Gulf War.
In the planning room, Scott Speicher and Tony Albano learned that they'd take off well after midnight and return around dawn. Hearing that news, they decided they'd better get some sleep and walked back to their stateroom. Speicher crawled into the top bunk, Albano into the bottom. They lay still for forty-five minutes, hearts pounding, minds racing. So many thoughts were going through their heads.
"I can't sleep," Albano finally said softly.
"I can't either," said Speicher.
Around 1 o'clock in the morning local time they put on their flight suits, boots and gear, and walked through the mess deck and up to the flight deck. Speicher, Albano, and fellow Sunliners slapped hands. "See you back on deck in a couple of hours," Albano told Speicher.
Scott Speicher had come to the Sunliners as a very junior department head. He didn't become a lieutenant commander until the squadron was underway on the Operation Desert Shield deployment. Speicher arrived at Aviation Officers' Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida, in July 1980. After completing AOCS at the top of his class, he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy on October 24 of that year. After he finished his flight training, Speicher reported to the Attack Squadron 174 (VA-174) Hellrazors for initial A- 7E Corsair II replacement pilot instruction before moving on to the VA-105 Gunslingers, where he made deployments aboard the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), USS Forrestal (CV-59), and from a base in Iwakuni, Japan. Over the next three years he transitioned from the A-7E Corsair II to the F/A-18 Hornet and qualified as a flight instructor on the VFA-106 Gladiators. His tenure as a flight instructor was followed by a rotation back to a fleet squadron. Scott's students later described him as a patient and thorough flight instructor.
Speicher and Albano met long before they shared a stateroom aboard Saratoga. "We developed a close working and then a close personal friendship," Albano said later. "We had similar personalities." They were also in a tightly knit squadron environment where pilots ended up living together in close quarters for six to nine month stretches. "We work together and rely on each other to save one another's life and provide both mutual support on liberty as well as in the air and in combat," he continued. Albano had just rolled off Carrier Air Wing 17 staff, where he'd been senior landing signal officer (LSO), to join the Sunliners. By chance he ended up filling a slot with the Sunliners that had been occupied by Scott's roommate, who'd left for his next assignment. "We became roommates and fellow department heads." But Bano had also just spent time with Scott and some of the other Sunliners at Fallon, Nevada, where the squadron had gone for pre-deployment workups.
"Everyone goes to Lake Tahoe," he recounted, recalling a funny incident that happened while the squadron was there. "It's nice in the wintertime because you can go skiing. Everyone goes and gets a chalet," Bano explained. "I remember Scott being passed out. I don't know if he passed out or just got tired of being in the bar we had gone to, but he went out to the van and it was freezing out there." Scott had bundled up and climbed under all the coats piled in the backseat. "He's out there," he continued, "and everyone's getting in the car." Speicher was under all the coats, but no one knew it yet. "Where the hell is Spike?" they thought. Then someone jumped in the backseat, on top of the coats, and Spike started rising up like a hamster out of pile of sawdust. "He just laid in the back of the van and went to sleep," recalled Bano. "I said, 'Spike, I gotta get you back. You're going to freeze out here. I'm going back to the bar, but I'm going to put you to bed, buddy.'"
"Thanks, Dad," Spike murmured.
Later, during the Christmas holiday, the Saratoga pulled into Haifa harbor and put off liberty boats for the crew and air wing personnel to go into Israel to see the sights. Sunliner pilots were relaxing in a hotel in Haifa where they'd set up a squadron admin, a stopping off point, sometimes one, usually several, hotel rooms to hang out and have a good time. Several floors up on a balcony, the Sunliners set up a cookout. Spike noticed construction going on across the street. "Twenty bucks I can hit the bulldozer with this kielbasa," Spike said, smiling broadly. "You're on," his friends replied. So Spike grabbed a whole kielbasa, ducked into the room to line up his shot, then quick-stepped to the railing and flung it up and out across the street, smack into the top of the bulldozer. The operator looked over and started yelling, and the pilots cackled: "Direct hit! Direct hit!"
Excerpted from An American in the Basement by Amy Waters Yarsinske. Copyright © 2013 Amy Waters Yarsinske. Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
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