A couple years ago, we had an amazingly different cruising experience! We “sailed” with my US Navy son aboard his ship, the USS Peleliu, back from Pearl Harbor to San Diego! Here’s the story …
Standing beside my son (no the sailor in the photo is not my son) on the flight deck of the USS PELELIU (LHA-5) as it departed Pearl Harbor, I am a civilian aboard a US Navy Amphibious Assault Ship. As a Navy mom, I joked that I wanted a tour of his ship. Now, music plays over the loudspeaker, the wind blows in my face as the tug boats maneuver our ship away from the dock, past the USS Arizona Memorial and toward the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean. The “Mighty Liu” as the Sailors affectionately call the ship, is headed home to San Diego after six long months in the Middle East deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Global War on Terror. I am aboard for a Tiger Cruise and although I was unaware, Tiger Cruises have introduced Navy families to their sons’ or daughters’ ships for almost as long as the Navy has had ships. En route from Pearl Harbor to San Diego, we were privileged to witness our US Navy in action, not from a distance or on television, but up close and personal.
Overhead an Air Force C-130 cargo plane landing at Hickam Field drowns out any hope of conversation, leaving everyone on the flight deck to their own thoughts.
Earlier in the week as we boarded the PELELIU, the ship towered over us. Entering via a typical steep ladder left me trying to catch my breath. Stairs became a way of life since the ship has eight levels up and seven levels down. At the top was the ship’s immense hangar bay. The massive size made us hesitate, but a welcome display featuring the PELELIU’s motto, “Pax per Potens” – translation, “Peace through Power”, pointed Tigers in the right direction. We dutifully stood in line at the proper table to receive our “orders” for the cruise and immediately afterward plunged into the maze of narrow gray hallways in search of our living quarters. Alone in my new “home”, I unpacked my stuff into my sea berth – they weren’t exaggerating when they said I wouldn’t have much room! Luckily, there’s no formal Captain’s dinner required on this cruise. Blue jeans, sweatshirts and tennis shoes were the uniform of the week.
Goodbye Pearl Harbor, Hello Pacific Ocean!
As the PELELIU put out to sea, we were escorted by tugboats, giving us a royal parting salute at the sea buoy, spinning donuts in the translucent turquoise Hawaiian waters. Before the spray from the tugboat salute had settled back into the Pacific Ocean, the flight deck came alive. I thought there was a lot of activity while the boat was at the dock, but it was nothing to what was unfolding before my eyes.
All of the ship’s aircraft must be ready to fly on a moment’s notice since the Navy can never anticipate world events that will require immediate action. Sailors responsible for maintaining the aircraft crawl all over dozens of helicopters and jets. Swaying precariously from the highest helo blades clinging like spiders in the stiff breeze, they perform necessary maintenance. The flight deck array includes Huey’s and Cobra attack helicopters, search and rescue helicopters and Marine transport helicopters. The six AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft – original jump or vertical take off and landing jets – launched the first Harrier raids over Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001. History comes alive aboard the “Mighty Liu”!
Just prior to the commencement of flight ops (short for flight operations), Tigers were instructed to appear at the forward end of the flight deck for a FOD Walk Down. Dodging spray from Sailors washing aircraft, we dutifully made our way forward against the intense wind. No one knew what we were being asked to do, but being good Tigers, we obeyed orders. Prior to flight ops, the entire carrier deck has to be swept for anything that could inadvertently be sucked up into a jet engine … we formed a solid line across the entire deck and walked the length picking up bits of string, ribbon, paper, rag and other debris. Now flight ops can commence and the excitement begins! The noise created by launching multiple helicopters was deafening, reminding me of the sign above the Navy Blue Angels practice field “The Noise You Hear is the Sound of FREEDOM”! GO NAVY!!!
Little Sleep for Weary Sailors … and ME!
Ten landing spots occupying the flight deck were in constant use underway. My living “space” was lucky enough to be directly under Landing Spot #2. During launch or landing, infernal racket and vibration momentarily stopped all conversation because hearing was impossible. My roommates told me that we were lucky – while Tigers were aboard, flight ops only occur during daylight, unlike the 24-hour normal rotation.
Sleep is difficult underway even without flight ops. Sailors rarely have a day in which they can actually count on getting eight consecutive hours of sleep. Their regular jobs, performed during the daylight hours, are supplemented by watch which requires them to be awake at all hours of the night on a rotating schedule. On days and nights when the seas are rolling the ship through 20 degrees, no one gets any sleep. As you can imagine, the ship goes through a lot of coffee. While the Tigers were aboard the crew enjoyed regular meals, plus the addition of 8 PM nachos, pizza or ice cream – similar to a cruise line’s culinary offerings, minus the ice sculptures. The only thing we didn’t get was a midnight chocolate buffet!
Continual Scheduled Maintenance
Maintenance that could not be performed on the flight deck meant aircraft had to be lowered via elevator into the hangar bay. The elevators are exterior and precariously descend with their precious aircraft all the while completely exposed to wind and waves. Earlier in the deployment, the crew enjoyed a well-deserved leisure break for a swim call and “steel beach picnic”. Led by Captain Marcus Hitchcock, Sailors and Marines plunged 30 feet from the port side elevator to swim in the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea. Tigers were not invited to go swimming – nothing could have convinced me to JUMP from that port side elevator! Instead, we feasted on burgers and traditional picnic fare at a “Steel Beach Picnic” held on the flight deck.
At its busiest, the hangar bay had multiple helicopters and Harrier jets down for maintenance all at one time. Cruising back from Pearl Harbor, nightly movies (complete with fresh popped buttered popcorn) were enjoyed on a giant screen suspended in the hangar bay On Halloween, a scary haunted house occupied the ship’s brig which at one time housed John Walker, the American citizen, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for joining Afghanistan’s Taliban army.
Compared to all the noise and hustle/bustle on the flight deck, below in the well deck, all is calm. Wandering among the 25,000 square feet of vehicle space – bigger than 2 football fields laid side by side, it was easy to get lost. Hummers, Tanks, and Light Armored Vehicles all start to look alike! All manner of combat vehicles are chained securely and over 100,000 cubic feet of cargo space containing everything Marines will need for immediate deployment sits quietly awaiting the moment they are needed. Gazing at all this stuff gives us a new appreciation of what this ship does. Offloading 2,500 Marines plus their entire city has to be a logistical nightmare! But for now, Sailors and Marines go about their normal jobs. The well deck houses the 88 foot LCAC, a high speed, over the horizon amphibious landing craft more commonly described as a hovercraft. Also on the well deck are two 135 foot long LCUs, an updated, larger version of the D-Day beach landing craft. For the LCUs to depart the well deck, the PELELIU has to literally sink eight feet in the stern so the ocean water comes in. Once afloat, the crew drives the LCU out the back of the ship.
A variety of shipboard tours organized for the education of Tigers included an adventure down into the hot and steamy propulsion and engine rooms, as well as the bridge where we witnessed firsthand all the navigation, radar, communication and high tech systems utilized. I thought my little Garmin GPS was fabulous technology until I saw the big ship version!
To occupy our “extra time,” Tigers were challenged to complete a PQS. PQS stands for Personnel Qualification Standards and is the method the Navy uses to ensure Sailors are well trained. The Tiger PQS was designed to familiarize Tigers with the operations and capabilities of our amphibious assault ship home. Consisting of over 90 questions that not only had to be answered but certified/signed off by Navy Sailors, the PQS looked daunting indeed! “What do JIC, SSES, SIU, EXPLOT and “Snoopy Team” stand for?” “What is a P-25?” “Name the rotating radars on the aft mast”, and “How are the ballast tanks filled with water?” are a few examples. To answer the questions, Tigers visited every department on the ship and asked questions. My son’s comment as he pinned on our Tiger “SWO” wings, earned by completing the PQS, was “you’ve been places on this ship that a lot of Sailors have never seen!”
Learning “Navy-Speak” was almost as challenging as negotiating the gray maze of hallways aboard … “UNREP will commence at 05:30 and can be viewed from the Level 8 Observation Deck”. Five thirty AM is definitely not a civilized time of day for me despite having been “in the Navy” for 9 days already. Not to mention that I had no idea what UNREP was or if it was worth getting up before dawn to witness. Nonetheless 5:15 AM found me watching the bright lights of the Underway Replenishment (UNREP) ship in the darkness draw closer to the PELELIU. Watching fuel hoses snake across the abyss as the two ships danced side by side in the Pacific Ocean waves, we wondered why one day out of San Diego we were getting fuel. The “Mighty Liu” is required to carry enough fuel at all times to return to the Middle East instantly in case of an emergency.
Warfare Power Demonstrations & An Amazing Airshow!
Mid-way through the cruise, warfare power demonstrations included firing the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System. The last line of defense against anti-ship missiles, the Phalanx resembled the mild and meek Star Wars droid, R2D2, until it erupted with ear deafening red lightning flashes shooting over 3,000 rounds per minute. In the pitch black Pacific night, helicopters on the flight deck were invisible at close range until donning a pilot’s night vision goggles which immediately made the pitch black deck look like daylight. Hoisting a Marine’s everyday weapons load proved to be too much for me – I could barely hoist just the gun! And our Marines not only carry the guns, but all their ammunition and support materials AND RUN for long distances in blazing heat! They are constantly working out aboard ship to maintain top physical shape. One day with the ship rolling 20 degrees (enough to make computers fall off workstations), we observed the Marines’ difficulties staying on the treadmills in the state of the art gym facilities. Running on a treadmill on a rolling ship while the rest of us are staggering to walk must seem a minor challenge for them.
Camp Pendleton, California
That evening, for the first time in 10 days, the PELELIU was swinging at anchor off Camp Pendleton, California, home for the Marines. Before dawn the next morning, the daunting task of offloading the Marines began. Suddenly the well deck was as busy as the flight deck! Helicopter flights, the LCAC hovercraft and LCUs departed every few minutes ferrying Marines to the beach where families awaited with a celebratory welcome home picnic.
On to San Diego!
After offloading the Marines, the PELELIU was underway again the following morning in a cold, rainy, gray fog. Nonetheless, the excitement of homecoming overshadowed the chill as the soggy Sailors lined the rails in the Navy tradition. The ship sailed under San Diego’s Coronado bridge escorted by fire ships streaming fountains of water as helicopters buzzed overhead welcoming the PELELIU back to her home dock. After being gone for six months, Sailors were happily re-united with families. My son’s first request on setting foot back on U.S. soil? “Let’s go get FISH TACOS”!
Thanks to the US Navy for inviting and encouraging families to join a Tiger Cruise. Here’s a BIG MOM’S SALUTE to the PELELIU and all the Sailors and Marines! We THANK you for everything you do and have sacrificed so that we can enjoy freedom in our great country!