Set the Way-Back Machine to late spring/early summer of the infamous year 2001 and join ‘US NAVY WARSHIP 55’ on patrol in the Northern Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf to most American landlubbers). As a part of the UN Forces tasked with enforcing sanctions against Iraq as a result of the invasion of Kuwait that resulted in Desert Storm, we were ordered to ‘babysit’ oil smugglers who had the misfortune of being caught with their tanks full of illegally exported Iraqi crude oil. The standard security crew consisted of a Chief and three Blue Shirts rotating in twelve hour shifts on around a dozen quarantined vessels. In theory, these security teams were manned by volunteers. However, when my counterpart Chief (the electrical guy) was disqualified for a medical issue, it was decided that my absence from the meeting was my concurrence with the decision that I was willing to take his place. I had fallen into the old “volunteered by virtue of absence” clause in the bylaws of the Chief’s Mess. Anyway, after much discussion, I lost my battle and was given my detail briefing and introduced to my security team : a fired-up, but slightly off-center Damage Controlman 3rd Class armed with a 9mm handgun; a laxidasical Storekeeper 3rd Class also armed with a 9 mm; and a gung-ho rambo Electronics Technician 2nd Class armed with a 12GA shotgun. And me, the crusty old Gas Turbine Chief with his trusty 9mm was to lead this motley crew on their optimistic journey to maintain control of 10-15 oil smugglers as they tried to escape or sink their quarantined ship.
Before I proceed, I need to pause for a moment and remind my audience that on November 18, 2001 the US NAVY lost two dedicated sailors as one of these oil smuggling ships sank under mysterious conditions. Petty Officer First Class Vincent Parker (age 38) of Preston, Mississippi and Petty Officer Third Class Benjamin Johnson (age 21) of Rochester, New York were lost at sea after the United Arab Emirates flagged tanker ship M/T Samara sank while being boarded for inspection as a suspected oil smuggler. The publicly available reports indicated that the Engineering Spaces (propulsion engine rooms) flooded during the boarding and inspection causing the vessel to sink. The two lost American sailors and two Iraqi crew members were trapped and ultimately went down with the ship. It was estimated that the ship was holding around 1,700 MT of contraband Iraqi crude oil which equated to approximately $236,011 US based on the November average for 2001. I only mention this approximate value of the crude oil to emphasize the fact that four human lives were lost and four families grieved the loss of their loved ones as a desperate nation plotted to elude economic sanctions that were a result of an aggressive act against a neighboring nation a decade in the past. Keep this incident in mind as you read about the adventures of my team just a few months before this incident.
Now, back to the tale of Big Al and Fenway Park…
As many of you are aware, the Pentagon is fond of oddball covert nomenclature for military operations and associated operational areas. During this period of time “between the wars”, the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) was the primary operational area for Fifth Fleet’s tasking to police the area and support UN Sanctions against Iraq as a punishment for the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The NAG was sub-divided into smaller patrol areas that were used for quarantining vessels suspected as smugglers of Iraqi crude oil. For reasons known only to a group of individuals, most likely in an obscure office located fourteen levels below the bottom floor of the Pentagon, these areas were named after American baseball parks. Our battle group was tasked with monitoring the area designated as Fenway Park.
Inside Fenway Park were anywhere from one to two dozen quarantined vessels at anchor. A small handful only required daily health and comfort visits but the majority of these vessels required 24/7 presence of UN Force security details. The vessels that required the security details were awaiting transfer to a nation such as Kuwait where they crew would go on trial for violation of UN Sanctions in the International Court of Justice. Since the crews of these quarantined vessels were mostly Iraqi, they feared going to trial in Kuwait. This fear was sustained by tense relations between Iraq and Kuwait after the invasion in ’91. These crews feared that their sentence would be under Muslim law which would mean punishment by death. FYI – this is not a ‘supposition’, I spoke openly with many of the Captains of the vessels my team was assigned to. They explained the pressures put on them by the ‘corporate owners’ of their vessels to smuggle the oil to fund the Iraqi regime. We also talked openly about how their current situation impacted their families (these vessels were normally at anchor without communication for several months before being escorted to port for trial). Granted this may have been an unsuccessful attempt to gain sympathy on my part, but I was truly interested in their motivations. As a bonus to these conversations, I gained the trust of the Captains which allowed them to inform me of any nefarious activities being plotted by their crews. I learned that many crew members feared for the lives of their loved ones as a retaliation by the Iraqi government if they were caught and went to trial as smugglers of Iraqi oil. Those fears fueled ideas of scuttling their ship while being boarded or during the quarantine process. Again, this is first hand information from an open and honest conversations.
During my tour as security detail leader, the security details consisted of four members. The senior member was to be a Chief or ‘well seasoned’ First Class Petty Officer. The remaining detail members were to consist of one Damage Controlman/Hull Technician, one electronics/communications rating, and one support member. The idea was to have a crew that could effectively man the vessel and identify suspicious behavior or equipment conditions and keep the vessel afloat with the on-board generators supplying power. To ensure positive, consistent, uninterrupted communication among the security detail members and detail leaders of surrounding vessels, we were provided with powerful hand held radios that had significant range. To avoid confusion, we began using code words to distinguish communications within our specific detail. My team’s first assignment was to a vessel named ‘Al-something’. With there only being four of us maintaining control of the vessel and its crew of 10-15, I decided that we would break into two groups of two. I would remain on the bridge with my shotgun-toting rambo and my Damage Controlman would team up with the Storekeeper to rove the ship. With our shifts being twelve hours long in the heat of the day (0500-1700), the roving team would report to the bridge evey hour for a fifteen minute break. While roving, the were required to report status via radio at least every fifteen minutes. With the chatter of our Brothers on surrounding ships on the same channel, my motivated young DC3 took it upon himself to give me the handle ‘Big Al’. This, of course, followed by my assignment of ‘Little Al’ to him as the roving team’s handle. We adopted these as our unique team identifiers on all of our assignments.
So, let us begin the tale of Big Al and Fenway Park…
The vessels in quarantine ranged from antiquated oil tankers sold for scrap in the ’50s, converted grain cargo ships, to ocean-going tug boats. On our very first detail as a security team, we were paired with another team on an overnight shift (1700-0500). The teams were paired because that particular vessel had been forcibly taken by the SEALs and the crew was considered very hostile. All in all it was an uneventful tour filled with that tedious boredom associated with late night watches. The only real ‘concern’ that I had was with the Chief leading the team we were paired with. He was ‘the other Gas Turbine Chief’ and for reasons unknown, he kept disassembling and reassembling his 9 mm. To add to the tension between our teams, his shot-gunner kept racking his shotgun just to rattle the crew. At one point I tried to get the other team to mellow out but my attempts were met with contempt and biased hatred of the Iraqis. So, my team regrouped and did our job my way (unobtrusive monitoring and control) while the other team kept a ‘pins and needles’ vigil. Fortunately, that was my one and only late night shift and also my last joint venture.
The remainder of our detail assignments were relatively uneventful. I had my daily chats with the vessel Captains when they voiced their concerns for their crews and requested their usual desire for more supplies (fresh food, fresh water, fuel for generators) and unmonitored radio communications with the owners of the vessel or crew families. The communications game was never ending – our requirement was that all crew communications were to be in English and closely monitored/recorded by our Mother Ship. The vessel crews would never agree to these terms, complain about the cruelty of isolation, and try again with the next crew. On the other hand, the evening security teams had their hands full. Since the vessel crews outnumbered the security details and had intimate knowledge of their vessel, they would venture from their cabins and try to create problems for our security teams. These little gremlins would do their best to scuttle their vessel, disable the generator, disable our portable pumps used to keep any flooding at bay, or launch their lifeboats and escape. During our time on station during this tasking, two significant events stood out that brought the real danger these details faced.
The first incident involved my security team. During the course of the daylight hours, it was not unusual for our Mother Ship and all or part of our coalition Navy ships to be over the horizon. On one of these days, an Iranian Navy Gunship began trolling through Fenway Park offering to remove the Americans from the quarantined vessels. This offer was conveyed via loudspeaker. I knew the content of the broadcast through translation by the Captain of the vessel we were on. I trusted his translation as we had become professional acquaintances over the course of several tours on his vessel. I also learned that both the Iranian and Iraqi governments had placed a substantial bounty on the heads of all American boarding and security team members. Anyhow, this Iranian Gunship was close enough for their crew to jump on-board my vessel and my defensive posture consisted of three 9mm hand guns with 45 rounds each and a 12 GA shotgun with 15 rounds – versus a gunship bristling with big guns and mounted machine guns. All the while, our calls out to Mother were unanswered because she was outside of radio range. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mother heard our calls but our radio could not pick up their response. After around twenty very tense minutes, we finally saw a massive bow wake on the horizon as Mother came to our rescue at flank speed. when Mother’s helicopter arrived on scene, the Iranians wandered off and all was well once again.
The other incident involved the same Chief that I was teamed up with on that first night. The vessel he was on had a recent history of late night shenanigans in effort to escape or scuttle their vessel. On this fateful night, they were finally able to succeed in delivery of their vessel to the briny depths of the NAG. Fortunately, his team was able to regroup on the main deck of the sinking vessel and extract themselves without injury – despite being covered head to toe in crude oil. The Iraqi crew was also rescued with only minor injuries. These crew members were detained on my parent ship and guarded using the same security teams and rotations used for the vessel they lost. Interaction between the detainees and our crew was forbidden outside of our security teams. It was during this time guarding the detainees that I observed the most significant signs of disdain and disrespect for the Iraqi people by our ship’s company. Our Chief Corpsman all but refused to treat the detainees and would substitute expired vitamin b-12 shots for antibiotics. The cooks would make sure that meals delivered had either visible or hidden pork products. But the most disrespectful act was perpetrated by my ship’s Commanding Officer when he would order course changes during the Muslim prayer times to prevent the Iraqis from finding Mecca. I lost what little respect I had for this particular Commanding Officer after witnessing his actions. We later heard that the Arabian news agencies were reporting that the US Navy had intentionally sank the oil tanker.
M/V Georgios sinking
Crew rescue: M/V Georgios sinking
Looking back at this story, I have little difficulty believing that the incident resulting in the loss of Petty Officers Parker and Johnson was an intentional act of sabotage perpetrated by the crew of the M/T Samara. These two brave souls and their misguided Iraqi counterparts lost their lives over $236,011.34 worth of crude oil deemed contraband by the United Nations based on an act that had occurred ten years in the past. I don’t understand, nor do I claim to understand, the success or failure rate of economic sanctions in situations like this but one has to wonder how effective these sanctions become when they people of a nation under sanction become so desperate as to risk their lives by becoming involved in smuggling or piracy.