It was almost 11:30 at night when the man overboard alarm sounded. I remember that because I was just signing off on the final fuel readings and waiting for Lessard to relieve me as Oil King of the Watch. The alarm was loud and insistent. It demanded your attention. The sound dove into my spine and made me sick to my stomach. It always did. Fire alarms, while not commonplace, occurred often enough that they did not incite fear. We all knew how to fight fires. The Navy is very good at damage control. It is beat into you early and often. But a man overboard? That was another matter all together.
The ocean is big. It’s much bigger than you think it is. I know you think you can grasp the magnitude of it, but you can’t. You have lived all your life looking at maps and globes and perhaps have even spent time at sea. But you cannot conceive how immensely huge it is. Those of us who have spent days, weeks, months in the middle of the ocean can tell you…even we do not really get it, although we probably have a healthier respect for it’s size and power. And that’s why the man overboard alarm sent a chill to my very core. But after a second I remembered that we were actually anchored less than a mile off-shore and liberty boats were shuttling sailors and marines back to the boat after a day of liberty. Some drunk squid probably slipped trying to make it from the ferry to the barge tied up to the ship’s fantail.
The USS Saratoga was built and commissioned back in the late 50s. One of the Forestall Class of carriers, she was the last of her generation not to use nuclear power. Old fashioned boilers powered her four props, and my job was to keep fuel in those boilers. Not a sexy job. Not “Top Gun”. But the Sara, as we called her, was a good fighting ship, and so there we were, in late December of 1990, off the port of Haifa, Israel, participants in what was then referred to as Operation Desert Shield.
We had been on station since the middle of August, patrolling the Red Sea, running interdiction and air sorties. Long, boring days. Day after week after month. Up and down it’s length we cruised, occasionally swapping with the USS Kennedy in the Eastern Mediterranean to give us a break from constant combat readiness. These little diversions allowed us to get a few days of liberty in ports like Izmir and Antalya and historic Istanbul. Turkey was a popular spot.
But it had been over a month since we had been ashore by the time we made it to Haifa. A long 6 weeks, if memory serves. Weeks of nerves on end, the tension of our mission growing every hour. Hours of monotony broken up only by moments of guessing about when, or if, combat operations would actually begin. The stress was palpable. And to make matters worse, the weather on our way up to Haifa had been bad. A carrier doesn’t get rocked around much by weather, but even the Sara was moving around in the 6 foot seas as she cut a swath of foamy white, heading north. By the time we pulled into the small harbor area, the captain had made the decision to cancel liberty until the weather improved. The six thousand on board were not happy. Land was right there. Close enough to reach out and touch it. Land. Solid ground that didn’t move. Showers with hot water that stayed on the whole time. Food that wasn’t prepared in a pot the size of a Volvo. Beer. Lots and lots of beer. Phones. Phones. Phones. This was civilization. Port represented humanity. And it was almost Christmas. Christmas in Israel. And like zoo animals looking from inside their cages, we watched as the weather kept us on the boat.
Finally the weather improved. Not a ton, but enough for the higher-ups to risk the ferries.
And now I wish we had all stayed on that boat, stayed on station in the Red Sea.
Anything but that night.
Lessard showed up 5 minutes late and took the duty so I could report to my man overboard station. Our shop mustered in the forward hanger bay, port side. On the way up from the 2nd deck, I was passed by the corpsmen from medical racing aft toward the fantail. In any general alarm there is noise, activity and a certain amount of controlled chaos, but already this felt different. I mustered with the rest of the 30 or so guys in my shop and we waited for permission to be dismissed to our berthing area. Most of us had liberty the next day and were anxious to get some sleep before we hit the town.
Sleep was not to come.
Rumors, or scuttlebutt, travel fast on board, and soon we were hearing that somebody had indeed fallen off one of the ferries. Then it was more than one. And then came the announcement over the 1-MC, the ship’s intercom. One of the ferries had capsized in the rougher than expected seas. Rescue operations where underway. All hands were to report to their duty stations, whether on watch or not. This was serious. I ran back down to the shop. I can’t remember how long we waited there. But pretty soon Sr Chief Thrasher came in looking pale. His uniform was always a little mussed, but he looked worse than usual. I found out later that the real word had hit the Chief’s berthing before anywhere else. In the military, it’s always the senior non-coms that run things and are in the know first.
We were put in pairs and given binoculars and sound-powered telephones and told to get some cold weather gear and get topside or to a sponson to help look for survivors. I think that was when I started to really get worried. This had never happened before. Nothing even close.
I got paired with Danis, a rough kid from Boston. We gathered gear and found a sponson port-side aft, where some of the refueling probes were stored. On the way we ran through a section of the aft hanger bay. There was an emergency triage station set up. Already we could see sailors and marines in civilian clothes, soaked to the skin, wrapped in heavy wool blankets. All them were pale and shivering. Close by there was a small group huddled around a lifeless body on the deck. I clearly remember what I saw next…
A chief from one of the air dale divisions was performing CPR. He was large and black and his yellow shirt jersey was wet with seawater and blood. He was pounding on the chest of the body on the deck, screaming at the top of his lungs with every shove. “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE!” he yelled. Over and over. Tears were streaming down his face. He was angry. He was desperate. “ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE!” Over and over again. “C’MON GODDAMNIT! YOU MOTHERFUCKER DON’T DO THIS!! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE!” It was an order. It was plea. His voice raised above the din and echoed in the cavernous hanger bay. A few feet away another sailor sat crossed legged, sobbing quietly. I was frozen until Danis grabbed my arm and pulled me into the passageway and up the ladder.
It was cold. Danis had wisely gotten his Pea Coat and woolen watch cap. I was in a flight deck work jacket and a ball cap. I quickly regretted my choice. The cold became a constant nagging fear. If we were cold, what about those guys in the water? I thought about the body and the chief in the hanger bay.
Choppers were already dropping parachute flares for added light. It’s amazing how brilliantly bright they were, and how little it helped. Danis and I took turns, one on the phones while one scanned the water with the binoculars. Early on we called in three or four visuals. I think only one was confirmed and picked up by one of the launches plunging around the site, crashing through wave after wave. I have no idea how those boatswains maintained control of those boats, but they did. And they saved a lot of lives. 102 men were on that ferry, and 81 survived.
21 sailors drowned off the coast of Haifa, Israel, December 22nd, 1990. There is a small memorial at the Mayport Naval Station in Florida, but I doubt if many who drive by the small marble stone have any idea what it’s there for. There will be some of you who might remember this small footnote to history, but again, not many.
I don’t know why I write what I write sometimes. It’s been 24 years since that night in the waters off Haifa. A lot has happened. I don’t blame people for not knowing about it or even not remembering. There are things that happened that next day that I still don’t like to talk about. But it’s the 24 years since that night that have been some of the hardest. Every Christmas I think of them. The faces of those 21. I only personally knew a couple of the guys. On a ship of 6000 people, there are many, most in fact, that you never even meet. But I remember the faces. And I think about the families. Every Christmas, when we are reminded of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men, when we see lights and sing carols and go to church and have parties and argue with siblings and all the things that come with the holidays… I think of the families. I think about the mother of that sailor in the hanger bay, who had her world crash around her one December morning. I think of that chief.
I will tell you a secret. There are times I feel worse for him than for anyone. There are times when I wish I knew who and where he was so that I could tell him that I know. That I saw him try. That I saw him cry to God and beg and plead and curse. I want to tell him it wasn’t his fault. That it wasn’t any of our fault. Not that my telling him would help. But does he know? Has he moved on and lived? Did somehow God grant him one of His infinite graces that allow you to live after something like that? Does he sleep at night? Can he close his eyes without seeing that boy? God I hope so. Dear God in heaven… I pray he can.
I didn’t write this to evoke some kind of guilt trip about enjoying Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the season and all that it means. I don’t know why I wrote it, to be frank with you. I think about that night every single day. I think about the mothers and the families and girlfriends and wives and children of the 21. I think about that Chief and the hundreds like him who poured their hearts out that night. But I don’t know why it came to me to write about it today.
I could end this with one of a dozen well worn sayings, all true, about how freedom isn’t free, or how we should appreciate what we have in life. But I think I will just say that this Christmas, when you say “Merry Christmas” to someone, that someone could be the mother or the chief. So when you say it, say it with love.
And mean it.