Nine/Eleven

This tale begins in April of 2001 when my first, and only, six month deployment began onboard USS Stout. While I had only been onboard for less than six months, I came to Stout directly from my previous ship, USS McClusky (FFG-41) out of San Diego. This was to be my fifth consecutive year at sea and who knows which one of how many extended deployments. This tour we were supposed to stay in the Mediterranean hopping from port to port. That, however would soon change.

Our first port visit was to Dubrovnik, Croatia. We pulled into a city not far from the ‘front lines’ of the war between Serbia and Croatia. Fortunately, peace was in the air and neither side was lobbing shells. The city itself was a beautiful Slavic city with roots in the ancient world. There was a stone wall fortress built around the entire ‘Old City’ limits. It took us the better part of two hours to walk around the perimeter of the city on the fortress wall. It was well worth the price of admission. From the wall, you can see the entire city, including the damages caused by the aforementioned war with Serbia. This is the type of port I love to visit. Rich in history, rich in culture, fabulous conversations with the locals in my second language of ‘Broken English’, and fantastic new foods to discover. Maybe this cruise won’t be so bad after all…………

            After Croatia, we set sail and moved on to our next scheduled port visit, Alexandria Egypt. I had been looking forward to this port visit since leaving Norfolk. At long last, I had the opportunity to visit the Pyramids. In a previous visit to Hurgada Egypt on USS America I had the privilege of visiting the Valley of the Kings and seeing the tombs of Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Ra. Tut’s tomb was closed for renovations but I did see the entrance. Anyhow, let’s just say that I was anxious to see the Great Pyramids up close and personal. However, we were diverted from that port visit by intelligence suggesting attacks on American interests. Considering the fate of USS Cole, US Sixth Fleet Command elected to deny our port visit to Egypt. As disappointing as it was to miss the opportunity to explore the past, it was probably the right decision to make. In retrospect, this was the first of many incidents that should have suggested something bad was ‘a fixin ta happen’.

Anyway, we bypassed Egypt and moved on to my favorite place in the world, aside from the USA that is, Italy. This time we would be visiting Taromina on the island of Sicily. Taromina is a city that was founded by the ancient Greeks before the Romans took control in their glory years. The city sits high on a mountain side facing the Adriatic Sea. The ‘Old Town’ is the walled fortress and is full of both Roman and Greek ruins. The coolest architecture in the city is the Greek amphitheater. Since I have had the opportunity to visit Athens I can tell you that it is almost an exact replica of the amphitheaters in Athens. I spent my days off roaming the city with one of the few real friends I had onboard, also one of the only other Chiefs onboard who had given up alcohol in favor of soaking up the local culture. We spent our days walking the streets eating Italian ice, shopping, eating pastries & chocolate, visiting the ruins, eating more Italian ice, climbing to the top of the hill to visit the closed monastery (no, we didn’t know it was closed before making the hour long trek). The climb (along a path, not free climbing) up was a blast. We met up with a group of European tourists which made the journey more enjoyable. At the end of the trek, we all stopped at a local street side restaurant for a hearty meal while watching the sunset over the Adriatic. It’s a good thing that we did a lot of walking in this port, my love for Italian food could have added on a few dozen pounds.

Next stop for us was Rhodes on the island of Crete. Rhodes is famous for the great statue of Colossus that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The statue is long gone, but the myth remains strong. On one side of the harbor is what appears to be the last know remains of the statue, a pedestal that may have supported one or both of the great statues legs.  Here like most European cities, ‘Old Town’ was the place to visit. Like Dubrovnik, and Taromina, ‘Old Town’ is the original city as it was centuries ago. This is the center of the city where all of the museums, parks and other ‘tourist’ destinations are found. If you ignore the modern shops and conveniences, it’s like a step back in time. Once again, my time here is spent on the ground exploring the local history, visiting the local restaurants, spending too much money in the local shops, and chatting with the natives. While here in Rhodes, I took a day trip to see the local sights which included cavern walking and a visit to the Baths of Aphrodite.  

The next stop on the voyage would be to Askaz, Turkey. Here we pulled into the local Naval Base. The city itself didn’t have much to offer for the sober sailor so I elected to take two tours. The first tour took us inland a few hours to the ruins of an ancient city, the name eludes me at the present. In this city once stood the largest library in the ancient world as well as a large Greek amphitheater. At the end of this tour we visited what is believed to be the last known home of the Virgin Mary. We ended the trip by visiting a local market for dinner. Unfortunately, the tour manager neglected to inform the local market that we were arriving but we still had a decent meal, just a tad bit later than expected. On our return to the ship, we ‘visited’ a local rug merchant. This was the catch to the low price tour that nobody knew about. Apparently the local rug merchant funds the tours to lower the prices in return for a cultural visit to show tourists how the rugs are hand made. And, oh by the way, since you are here with the tour, we’ll give you the special low prices for tourists. Oh well, at least I learned how rugs were made. The following day, we headed off to another remote part of Turkey. This time we visited a walled city high atop a hill and an awesome mineral salt water fall. This trip also included a free meal – they even remembered to call ahead this time. At the end of this trip, the rug baron was also on the route. However, the tour guide remembered me from the previous day and asked if I would prefer to stay on the bus and take a nap rather than be run through the sales pitches. Oh by the way, the previous day’s tour started at 9 AM and ended at around 11 PM. This day’s tour also started at around 9 AM and the rug merchant stop was at around 7 PM. Can you guess what option I took?

Just after leaving this port visit, we received a schedule change and were now headed directly for the Arabian Gulf. We were tasked with conducting boardings on suspected Iraqi oil smugglers and with providing security for the ships in quarantine for smuggling oil out of Iraq. The boarding teams had their hands full, just about every day they would be tasked with boarding at least two or three cargo ships. For those ships that refused to allow our boarding teams access we had a special treat. Those that refused access were labeled as ‘non-compliant’, these vessels got the privilege of hosting the US Navy SEALS onboard. These ships would signify their non-compliance by either refusing to communicate with the UN Ships or by refusing to stop thinking we could not board them at 15 knots. Well, the SEALS just loved this type of challenge. They would fly over the vessel in their helo and rappel down to the roof of the bridge. Once on the roof of the bridge, the SEALS would then blow a hole in the windshield using high explosives and take over the bridge. Once in control of the bridge, the SEAL team would then proceed to ransack the entire ship looking for contraband. To keep track of what rooms had been inspected they simply blew the doors off of their hinges. Anyhow, once a ship had been found smuggling oil, it was quarantined to the ‘Penalty Box’. In order to prevent the ships in the penalty box from proceeding underway or dumping their contraband, each ship in the battle group had to provide a security detail to watch over the ship’s crew. The STOUT originally decided that the security team concept would be manned up by the common sense volunteer approach. However, the ship soon determined the only person who would volunteer for a crazy job like this was already employed by the Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) teams that were conducting the boardings that sent these ships into the penalty box to begin with. Anyway, this is when I was approached and ‘asked’ to volunteer to be a security team leader. Can you guess as to my initial response? Let’s just say that I was not a ‘happy camper’ when being assigned to this particular job. The security team consisted of one senior member (Chief or above in rank) and three junior team members. The four of us, who knew nothing about the ships we were guarding – oh by the way, were tasked with guarding the crew of a ship and making sure that they did not sabotage their ship to destroy the evidence of their smuggling activities. The average size of the crews we were in charge of was 18 to 25. Four of us with no idea how to get around the ship had to keep track of 25 people who knew each and every corner of the ship. Can you see a problem here? To make things even more interesting, we were armed with either a 9 mm pistol or a 12 gage shotgun. Each team of four carried 3 pistols and a shotgun. Now I have spent my military career avoiding the need to use shotguns and pistols. I work on engines, I’m not Rambo. Anyhow, I got lucky and pulled the day shift on security detail. Not much really happened on the day shifts, the crews usually waited until night fall to try to sink their ships. For the most part, the job was uneventful. We would relieve the night shift at around 5 AM and be relieved by the same night shift at around 5 PM. The ships ranged in size from a medium sized oil tanker to an ocean going tugboat. On each ship, the ship’s master complained about how unfairly they were being treated. On occasion, one or two crew members would insist that we let them use the phone to call home. When we would tell them that the only way they could call home was if they spoke in English and had an intelligence specialist listening in they would protest and get rowdy. At this point I would end the conversation by merely having the shotgun toting member of my team chamber a round. It seems that the sound of a shotgun being racked is a universal signal to leave before trouble started.  The only time that I really felt in danger was when the UN ship that was protecting us [mother ship] was not in the immediate area. Whenever the mother ship strayed over the horizon, the Iranians would send over a gun ship and offer to release the smugglers from our control. I had three handguns, each with 45 rounds of ammo, and a shotgun with 20 rounds of ammo at my disposal to defend against a heavily armed gunship – not exactly an even fight. If it wasn’t a gunship it was a heavily armed helo or two. Luckily, the mother ship would eventually answer our calls for help and run the Iranians away from the pack. The other scary part of this job was the fact that each ship’s crew was trying to sink their ship. Once caught the smugglers would eventually be sent to an Arabian country for trial, most commonly they were sent to Kuwait. Ever since the first Gulf War, the Kuwaiti’s had fostered an extreme hatred towards all Iraqi’s and anyone helping them. If the smugglers were sent to Kuwait for trial, they would either spend the rest of their natural lives doing hard labor in an Kuwaiti prison or suffer the fate of beheading. If for some reason the Kuwaiti government did not imprison or kill them, the smugglers would be sent back to Iraq where they would normally be put to death for being caught smuggling. That said, they had plenty of incentive to sink their ships and dispose of the evidence against them. During our tour, we managed to keep all but one ship afloat. That one ship, the Georgious D, managed to finally send her cargo to the floor of the Arabian Gulf just a week before we were scheduled to leave station. Fortunately for us, no shipmates were lost. A few months later, while safely at home on leave, the USS PETERSON lost six shipmates in a similar incident. Anyhow, we left that mission and moved on to the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) for intelligence gathering against both Iraq and Iran. During our tour of the NAG we pulled into Bahrain three times for liberty and maintenance. Two of the three visits were cut short due to intelligence indicating a high potential for attacks against US interests.

Eventually we departed the Gulf and moved back into the Mediterranean Sea for some much deserved time off. Our first port visit after the Gulf was to La Maddelena, Italy where we have repair ship stationed. We arrived for about a week to have some maintenance conducted and to give the crew some time off. La Maddelena had little to offer in the way of historical sights but it was Italy and I love Italian food. Other than visiting a lot of the local restaurants, I didn’t really do much while on shore.

Our next port visit was to Limasoll, Cyprus. Like La Maddelena, there wasn’t much to offer in the way of historical sights. However, I still managed to have a good time there. Most of the time on shore was spent just walking around the city and exploring the hidden treasures. While meandering around the streets enjoying the local atmosphere, I stumbled upon an unexpected sight – a 1968 Super Stock Hemi Dodge Dart! This is a fairly rare car in the States as they were only made for factory drag racing teams and never intended for street use. This bad-boy however, was a daily driver. Anyhow, as I was picking my jaw back up off the sidewalk, the owner came out to see why I was hovering over his car. As we chatted, I learned that in the ’60s he had attended college at the University of Michigan and become friends with the local drag racing crowds. Through these friends, he somehow managed to get his hands on one of the factory drag cars which he had shipped to his home in Cyprus. When he returned home from college, he tamed the car down for street driving and had been driving it daily since then. He just laughed at me when I told him how much the car was worth in the US. We talked about cars and racing for a few hours over a pot or two of tea. ’twas a pretty awesome adventure.

The next stop was to Augusta Bay on the island of Sicily. Augusta Bay is an industrial city with absolutely nothing to offer for the tourist. However, it is only an hour away from Naval Air Station Sigonella. The visit was only scheduled to last for about a week. One day, I took the bus to the Naval Base to pick up some supplies at the Navy Exchange but most days were full of work followed by a picnic at the park at the end of the pier. Our main reason for this visit was to outfit the ship with sensors to be used during war games with our European allies.

It was here that we first heard of the attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon. We had just started making preparations to get the ship underway on the 13th of September when the word was passed for all officers to muster in the Wardroom and all Chiefs to muster in the Chief’s Mess. The tone of the announcement implied that something bad was happening. While waiting for the Captain and Command Master Chief (CMC) to arrive and explain the sudden meeting we all thought that this was all about yet another schedule change or more of that annoying intelligence chatter that kept our schedule in flux. At this point nobody had a clue as to the events that were unfolding in the US. When the CMC arrived in the Mess, he told us about the attacks and started playing the CNN footage. We were told that both of the World Trade Center towers had been attacked and that another plane was headed for Washington DC. Shortly thereafter we heard of the third plane attacking the Pentagon and of the crash in PA.

The worst part of this ordeal was not knowing what was really happening. We were told that the fourth plane was forced into the ground in a small town near Johnstown and Altoona. Imagine what thoughts were flying through my mind at this time. If recall; Bolivar is a small town near Johnstown and Altoona. The crew was falling apart, a lot of the crew was from NYC and had relatives or friends who worked in the towers. Others, like me, had family living in the rural towns near Johnstown and Altoona, we still had no details as to exactly where the fourth plane had crashed.

Anyway, we got the order to leave port as soon as possible and patrol a box in the Mediterranean while waiting further orders. We also went into immediate and total communication block out. It would be almost a week after the fact before we received the full details of the attacks.

We got the ship underway in just four hours after being ordered back to sea and were soon in our box waiting for further orders. Our box was at the eastern most edge of the Med, well within Tomahawk range of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and any other hiding place of the world’s terrorists. Since we carried over half of the Tomahawks in the Med, we assumed that our routine six month deployment was soon to be extended. Eventually, our relief arrived on station and the powers that be decided to allow us to return home.

By the time we arrived back n Norfolk it was late into October and most of the shock of the attacks had faded into recent memory. Nothing would ever be the same after this heinous attack on American soil but time would eventually heal most wounds.   

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