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U.S. Naval Shipyard,
THE 727 shuddered, bucking turbulent air as it passed over the rain-lashed Delaware. Lt. Comdr. Daniel V. Lenson looked down at the moored shoals of heavy cruisers, auxiliaries, destroyers. The mothball fleet, ships the Navy didn't need now but thought it might someday. He was in civvies, slacks and a windbreaker; with sandy hair and gray eyes that were starting to gather sun wrinkles at the corners.
"There's the old Des Moines," said Comdr. Greg Munro, leaning to peer past him. "Started my career on her, when I was a seaman deuce."
"Can we see Gaddis from here?" Lenson said.
"Should be over to the right—no, forget it; we're coming in for the approach."
Munro was the chief staff officer of Destroyer Squadron Twelve. It was Munro who'd called him at his stash billet in Norfolk the week before and asked if he was Dan Lenson, surface line officer, executive officer experience in frigates, coming in the zone for commander?
Dan had said, "Yeah, that's me. Why?"
"Just out of curiosity, ever serve on a 1052?"
"I was on Bowen my second tour. Why?"
"Got any objection to taking one over on short notice?"
"You putting me on? Who is this, anyway?"
Munro had identified himself then and assured Dan it wasn't a joke; they needed a short-fuze relief for the skipper of Oliver C. Gaddis. He advised Danto say yes fast, before someone else heard about it. Gaddis was home-ported in Staten Island but had had a boiler explosion at sea and was limping into Philly for repairs. "I'll be sketchy on this, but the commodore's been thinking of slotting another player in there for a while now. It didn't seem urgent, because of the circumstances of the command. But this latest ... we called over to see who SURFLANT had in pocket. They said your board was coming up; if you had command time it'd help you out."
"Well, I'm sure it would," Dan had said. "Uh, sir, what do you mean, `the circumstances of the command'?"
"You're what, a senior 0-4? With this in your jacket you'll be a shoo-in."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that." Dan had a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. He also had a Navy-Marine Corps Lifesaving Medal for keeping his men together and alive through two days in the water after his ship had hit a mine in the Gulf. But along with them, his jacket held a letter of reprimand, a midtour relief, and more than one equivocal fitness report.
So at last he'd told the voice on the phone sure, he'd give it a shot. And now they were descending into Philadelphia International, past blasted-looking marsh and refinery towers bleeding a sulfurous pus into the sky, and the FASTEN SEAT BELTS light came on and the announcing system warned them to stay in their seats, to be prepared for rough air on the approach to their final destination.
MUNRO had been quiet on the plane, but in the taxi he cleared his throat. "OK, time for the details. Why you're here, what we expect you to do."
"Shoot." Dan concentrated, determined not to miss a word.
"The commodore has lost confidence, as the saying goes, in Dick Ottero's ability to command. I'm not going to cite you chapter and verse. It's enough to say he's been counseled before."
An unpleasant thought occurred to Dan. "He knows he's being relieved today, right?"
"I called him last night. Enough about him; let's talk about the ship. You know we're ramping down the frigate force, right?"
"Yeah, now we don't have to worry about convoying the Army to Europe against submarine attack."
"Exactly. So Gaddis is being disposed of as excess, transferred overseas under the Foreign Military Assistance Program."
Dan's dreams suddenly froze, like buggy software. As the screen faded, he muttered, "Oh. Uh ... when? Who's it going to?"
"Here's how it works. Once the Navy decides we don't need a ship, the CNO decides if he wants to offer it as a foreign military sale asset. That's handled out of something called NAVOTTSA—Navy Office of Technology Transfer and Security Assistance. I won't bore you with the process, but it ends up with the gaining country signing what's called a Letter of Offer and Acceptance." Munro pulled a fat envelope out of his briefcase. "Your copy, plus the Security Assistance Manual, the Joint Security Assistance Training Regulation, and the Hot Ship Turnover Training briefing. She'll be first of five frigates we're turning over to the Pakistanis."
The taxi's tires droned. Looking out, Dan saw they were lifting on a long bridge. Past a cage of green girders the Schuylkill twisted like a strangling snake beneath a rainy sky. The pointed towers of downtown Philly pricked the clouds. Then across a brown waste of marsh he caught the gray island of a carrier, stacks and masts and the slab hulls of oilers and tenders.
"When's it happen? The transfer?"
"I'm getting to that. This is what they call a `hot turnover'—where the original crew ramps down simultaneous as the foreign crew ramps up. There's a total twelve-week turnover period. Gaddis was in week twelve when they blew one-alfa boiler—"
"How'd they blow a boiler?"
"One of the snipes, showing off. They were under way doing their engineering casualty control exercises, and in the course of that they go to put fire back in one of the boilers. They'd pulled fires in it, so it's still warm, and one of the chiefs says, `Hey, we don't use those goddamn books. Here's how we do it in the real Navy.' So he lit it off the back wall. Know what I'm talking about?"
"Usually it works. Unless you don't purge before you relight."
"Exactly what happened, and he hits it with a shot of fuel and kaboom."
Dan said cautiously, "Not necessarily the skipper's fault."
"Wait'll you get there; you'll see why we decided to clean house starting at the top. Now, normally the way this would work is the commodore would fly down, relieve Ottero, and leave the exec in charge till the Pakis get under way. But the commodore's in Rosey Roads doing an exercise, and Lieutenant Commander Juskoviac's really not command-qualified. So I'll get you pointed in the right direction. The ship transfer officer'll help if any roaches jump out of the process."
Dan sat back. The closer he got, the less attractive it looked. A careless fireroom gang, a relieved skipper, an exec who'd have been acting CO—commanding officer—if not for him. Still, it was better than pushing paper in Norfolk.
A lofty ironwork gate. "Here's the yard," said the driver.
"Pier six. Straight down toward the river." As Munro flashed his ID for the gate cop, Dan caught sight of a straggling line of what he at first took for strikers. Then he saw the signs, U.S. HANDS OFF IRAQ. PRAY FOR PEACE. He lifted his hand in a wave, searching their faces, drawing a quizzical glance from Munro. Then the cab was moving again, past the marchers into the bustle and grime of the yard.
* * *
THEY passed 1870s-era brick barracks, a parade ground, then slowed, bumping over patched asphalt along barbed-wire-lined alleys into the steamwreathed heart of the shipyard. A line of destroyers lay derelict and listing, rusting in the rain. Stone dry docks cratered the wet-glistening earth. Out of one loomed a mountainous hull, clifflike sponsons. USS Constellation, CV-64.
"Pier Six," said Munro at last. The concrete shelf extended a quartermile out into the Delaware, into mist and river fog. "We better walk from here."
She took shape slowly from the inchoate gray, as if she were steaming toward them over the gray-green river. He'd always considered the Knox-class frigates graceful-looking ships. About the same displacement as the Gearings he'd started his career on, but roomier and more modern, with aluminum superstructures and low-maintenance design. Strange to think they were already passing out of the Fleet, outmoded less by time than by the changing realities of world politics.
He shook off the depression that thought gave him. The high Atlantic bow faced him as he stepped carefully across the grease-caked rails the pier cranes rode on. It was topped by the rounded housing of a five-inch gun. Behind the ASROC (antisubmarine rocket) launcher rose the sheer front of the bridge. Above towered a gray cone topped with a drumlike structure, a combined mast and stack unmistakable from miles away at sea. Then he saw something he didn't expect.
"What's that on the fantail? And the boat deck?"
"The Pak Navy wanted more firepower. So we went rooting around and came up with some old forty-millimeters. We put twins on the boat decks and a quad mount on the stern. They're getting twenties, too, but they're not installed yet."
A chunky blond in steel-toes and wash khakis loped down the brow. Munro introduced Lt. Comdr. Evilia Beard, the ship transfer officer. Dan followed her and Munro aboard, aware as he faced the flag and then the OOD that every man on the quarterdeck was watching them with outright hostility.
THE outgoing CO's lips were crimped like the edges of a metal can. His eyes were reddened and glossy behind plastic-framed lenses. As they shook hands outside the captain's cabin, Dan understood the squadron commander's decision to relieve him. 0900, and Richard Ottero's breath was bourbon-ripe. Dan had noticed other symptoms of a carelessly run ship on the climb up from the quarterdeck: a holstered pistol hanging unattended, paint on gaskets and knife edges, out-of-date inspection labels, trash in the passageways.
"Sorry we had to meet this way," Dan told him.
"Don't take it personally if I don't say welcome aboard," Ottero said. He turned to Munro. "Let's make it short and sweet."
"OK by me. Dan?"
Ottero's hand trembled as he made sure his uniform pockets were buttoned. He faced the ship's exec, a thin lieutenant commander with a long head like a greyhound's, fine light brown hair receding in front. "Greg, how do I look?"
"Good, Skipper. For a guy about to get the shaft."
Ottero told Dan, "You can have the damn job and to hell with you. But take care of her. I know she doesn't look so hot right now, but I've been undermanned since day one. She's a good ship. Too good to be giving away."
Dan felt like he was watching something he didn't want to see. Alcohol and humiliation. He remembered. He said, "I'll keep that in mind. Captain."
"By the way, where's Khashar?" interrupted Munro. The exec said the Pakistani CO and the incoming crew were on the berthing barge. He hadn't seen any reason for them to—
Ottero interrupted, "Right. OK, get 'em mustered on the flight deck, Greg. Give me a ring when they're ready." To Dan he said, with what seemed a touch of irony, "Care for a drink?"
"No thanks. I had to quit, myself."
They stood silently for a few minutes. Then the phone squealed, and Dan and Munro followed Ottero aft.
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Posted December 28, 2003
Being a retired navy I have emjoyed all your books featuring Lieutenant Commander Dan Lenson, China Sea was a great book that I had to read it all in one setting I could not put it down. You have captured navy life and naval warfare in a great way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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