Read an Excerpt
And the rockets’ red glare . . .
The Persian Gulf, 0150 Hours, 17 January 1991
The ready room went stone silent as the ship’s MC public address system became audible, and Captain Ernest E. Christensen Jr., the commanding officer of USS Ranger, began to speak:
In August last year Iraq invaded and dismantled a country, Kuwait. That country has virtually ceased to exist. Iraq’s armed forces occupy Kuwaitapproximately 530,000 men in 41 divisions. They man the KTO. In October, the United Nations resolved that if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January force would be authorized. The time for Iraq to withdraw has passed. United Nations coalition forces are now authorized to use force. On 16 January the National Command Authority declared DEFCON Two.
A few minutes ago I was informed by our operational commander, Rear Admiral Zlatoper, that the president has ordered the U.S. Central Command to engage Iraq in hostilities.
Few Americans are as privileged to stand up and be counted. . . . We have been given the honor of representing our country in combat. We are here in this moment in history. We volunteered for this duty. We are trained for this day. We are ready for this day.
Ranger will launch . . . Air Wing Two will strike . . . targets within Iraq this morning. We shall make our presence felt. This ship . . . this air wing . . . these staffs . . . will make in history a measurable difference on this day, and on the days to follow.
The wing will fly tonight and tomorrow and in the days that follow. . . .
From those of us who cannot go . . . we wish you good luck. For those of us who steam, fuel, feed, arm,and launch the aircraft on this ship . . . we are greatly counted upon, for what we do here in the near future will guarantee what this nation does in the far future.
To the air wing . . . Godspeed, good hunting . . . keep your powder dry and your knots up. For the rest of us . . . let’s go get ‘em!1
The aviator-filled room projected an aura of unease at the solemn tone and content of Captain Christensen’s speech. This was definitely not the routine rendition of the ship’s progress through cruise that the flight crews were used to digesting. The Attack Squadron 155 (call sign “Jakals”) commanding officer continued with his strike briefing to the packed ready room, standing room only as those not actually involved in the strike filled in the back to listen to the plan. Sixty minutes had passed since we had first sat down, and the Jakal CO was reaching the end point of his brief.
“Last words, let’s make sure that our flight suits are sanitized.” He tore the Velcro-backed name tag with “CO” written on it off of his flight suit, the last step in ensuring a minimum of information to any potential Iraqi captors. The sound of tearing Velcro reverberated throughout the ready room.
1. Thanks to Ranger’s 1991 cruisebook for jogging my memory of the exact wording of the speech Captain Christensen gave to the ship on 17 January.
The brief had been quick and concisevirtually everyone flying the mission had been intimately involved in the planning and had flown the practice strike three days earlier. The briefing was more of a final review and update for any latechanging information. The individual mission components of bombers, fighters, radar jammers, high-speed antiradiation missile (HARM) shooters, and tankers broke off into separate groups to discuss their plans in greater detail. The room emptied until only the six Intruder bomber crews remained, and even this final face-to-face went exceedingly quickly. We all knew what to do; there was simply nothing left but to get on with it.
Rivers and I made the long walk forward to our ready room in silence, absorbing the strange stares of the sailors in the passageway. They knew that we were preparing for a flight quite different from what Ranger had grown accustomed to launching. I opened the bright green door, barely glancing at the finely painted logo “VA-145 Swordsmen”and walked directly toward the schedule board behind the squadron duty officer’s desk. Next to our names was the side number of our Intruder for the mission, 502, with the ordnance load out in bright red. All five of the A-6’s bomb stations were filledtwo with six rockeye cluster bombs apiece, one with a HARM missile, and one with an ALQ-126 jamming pod to confuse the SA-6 surface-to-air missile (SAM) radar. The SA-6 was a particularly lethal SAM. The last station held a center drop tank to carry an additional 2,700 pounds of fuel. No surprises here. Rivers and I wrote down the appropriate weights for 502 and her load for the catapult shot, gave it to the duty officer, and sat down for a final redundant review of the briefing checklist. It took all of five minutes.
“Had enough, Rivs?” I had. The standing around was too much.
“Let’s get geared up; I’d rather wait on deck.” I followed Rivers down the passage to the pararigger shop, where we joined our fellow Swordsmen crews.
Nobody said a word as they suited up. The parariggers stood by, ready to assist in any way they could, mildly out of place not wearing flight gear, with a look of concern in their eyes. The TV was tuned to CNN, with the volume turned all the way down. It was absolutely quiet while the aviators got dressed. Outside in the passageway, I could barely discern that the ship’s 1MC loudspeaker was alive; Admiral Zlatoper was speaking, but none of us could make out the words. Snax walked into the room with his camera hanging around his neck.
“Snax, did you catch that on the MC?” I figured that whatever the battle group admiral had to say, it was probably more important than calling away “sweepers” for the ship’s nightly cleaning.
“The battle group launched Tomahawks a couple of hours ago. We’re officially attacking Iraq.”
Oh, shit. It seemed less likely by the second that our mission would be scrubbed in a last-minute peace deal. I just nodded my head, uncharacteristically at a loss for a smart-ass retort.
The audience, half clad in their bulky flight gear, cumulatively switched their attention back to the TV, where the backdrop was Baghdad. Everyone in the room froze. Snax reached to turn up the volume, and the reporter’s voice became audible.
“There are explosions in Baghdad; I repeat, there are explosions in Baghdad. Hostilities have commenced.” We had known about it for the past ten seconds. CNN finally scooped by the navy.
The noise of the TV blended into the background clutter, and the four Attack Squadron 145 Swordsmen crews completed their silent routine of dressing and getting psyched up for the hop. Rivers and I were in the fourth bomber slated to cross the beach; Fang and Beef were in the fifth. Our sister A-6 squadron, radio call sign “Jakals,” preceded us in the one-through-three positions. Both of the dedicated HARM missile shooter A-6s were Swordsmen. Each carried a load out of four of the radar homing missiles. The pararigger shop emptied slowly, each pair of aviators maintaining crew integrity and not straying off, sticking together as if they were already strapped next to one another in their red-lit cockpits. It was human nature to grasp out for the known and familiar, the close proximity of a comrade, and the snug fit of the flight gear.
The feelings of patriotism and political calculation that had been steadily growing for the past weeks were thrust to the back of my consciousness, all considerations pushed aside except for those necessary to get bombs on target. Rivers and I filed out last, deliberate in our movements and slow in their execution. We were striving to reach that meditative state of self-assurance where you were untouchable, completely in control of your emotions, utterly in command of your faculties. You were the person in charge, you were taking the action that others would have to react to. Nobody could hurt you; they might kill you, but they could not hurt you because you would not allow yourself to be bothered with the hurt. It was all part of the preparation process, building a frame of mind conducive to action and the exclusion of second-guessing and hesitation. The time for that was past, the plan was made, the groundwork complete, for better or worse it was all real time and operational from here on out. Time to go to work.
We took one last swing through the ready room to check out our pistols. Rivers picked up one of the squadron 45s, and I took my personal 9mm from home out of the safe. I holstered the handgun, and opened the large front pocket in my SV-2 survival vest to make room for two extra ammunition clips. I pushed the shot kits with their anti-nerve agent atropine and accelerator slightly to the side, and squeezed the bullet magazines next to my folded “blood chit.” The blood chit was a survival parchment that explained in Arabic and Farsi who I was if I was found after an ejection and how a reward would be given to anyone who would assist in my evasion. This represented a real act of desperation if it came down to the blood chit saving our asses, but you never knew. Rivers and I took the long walk across the ready room with a great attempt at nonchalance, doing our best not to look around but to maintain our focus on the next few hours. A few “good lucks” were shouted out, but the serious tones and lack of true spontaneity belied any comfort they might provide. The ready room door hit me in the ass on the way out.
Rivers and I faced each other on the moving escalator as we were carried up the three levels, each of us at a compete loss for anything to say. Rivers had a big, dumb grin on his face, and who knows what idiotic expression I had on mine. The closer we got to our jet the easier it became; as with everything on the ship, the waiting was the worst. What we needed to do was strap in and get going. We reached the top of the escalator, and the lights turned to night-vision-adapting red for the short walk to the hatch that led out onto the catwalk adjacent to catapult one. We stopped to put on our skullcaps and helmets, screwed the red lenses onto our flashlights, and stepped outside.
The salt spray in the air mixed naturally with the odor of jet fuel and the exhaust from the yellow gear tow tractors. I pressed the button on my flashlight and trained the red beam on the tails of the A-6s lined up on the catapult until I found the number 502; we struck out for it. The ordnancemen were just finishing up when we reached the boarding ladders. A group of six “ordies” were on the port side of the jet, wrestling with the “hernia” bar attached to a 500-pound rockeye. They manhandled the cluster weapon into position on the multiple ejector rack where the other five bombs were already secured. A second contingent was hoisting the 900-pound HARM onto station four with a motorized winch that sounded like a chain saw in the stiff breeze. More waiting. I put my flight boot on the boarding ladder and stretched my calf out, working the knots out of my legs, as if the coach were about to put me in the big game. The ordies finished their work and hurried off en masse to their next assignment. I looked up at the stars in the clear, dark sky and climbed up the ladder.