Aboard tense U.S. battleship in gulf, sailors hone damage-control skills

January 16, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent This article was compiled from information gathered by a news media pool. Also contributing was George Rodrigue of the Dallas Morning News.

ABOARD THE USS WISCONSIN -- For the first time since its last port of call, the 1,500 sailors on the battleship Wisconsin were ordered out Sunday night on a general-quarters drill.

"General quarters! General quarters! All hands man your battle stations!" The orders were blasted over the ship's speaker system at 7:30 in the evening.

All hands equipped themselves with modern, lightweight gas masks (with large, clear plastic face covers) and packages containing inflatable life jackets.

In the event of an attack involving chemical weapons, the ship would jump to condition Circle William. Hatches and ventilation systems would be shut off, and hoses on the main deck would envelope the vessel's deck, 887 feet long by 108 feet wide, in a cloud of spray to wash away any contamination.

It is an untested method of defense, and Petty Officer 1st Class Elliott Harris, 32, of Macon, Ga., said, "It looks good on paper, but you do not win wars on paper."

In the Damage-Control Center, every sailor buttoned his top shirt button and pulled socks over pants legs, "to keep things like burning embers from getting up there," one man explained.

This is the Wisconsin's first deployment since its refitting and commissioning in October 1988. The ship is armed with 32 Tomahawk missiles, 10 harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles, nine 16-inch guns and a variety of other weapons.

Running the general quarters drill was Lt. Cmdr. Ernesto M. "Zee" Zambrano, a tall man, solidly built with a big voice. He is 44, and his family is in Vallejo, Calif.

In approach and manner, he was an efficient combination air controller, truck dispatcher and police chief. He ran the drill from a low-ceilinged room, surrounded by his crew and panels of red alarm lights.

Almost every bit of wall surface was covered by the alarm panels. Behind him, hung just below the ceiling, were eight boxes, each the size of a school lunch box, one for each of the eight Tomahawk cruise missile batteries. Each battery, called an armored box launcher, contained four Tomahawks.

The drill went moderately well, but not great, because it took 11 minutes, 10 seconds for the final repair station to call in to say all was in order.

The standard maximum time is 11 minutes. The goal is to hear from all stations within eight minutes.

Commander Zambrano wasn't shy about showing his impatience with the men responsible for eliciting reports from throughout the ship.

"If you are not getting the call from your repair locker, you must yell out," he said. "Pinpoint damages. We're flooding? We're flooding where? Which compartment? How far off the bulkhead?

"We need to pinpoint, pinpoint damages, with personnel casualties."

The response he wanted from each department was that "Z-set" was achieved. That is Zebra condition, when all possible hatches and valves are closed in order to confine damage to as few compartments as possible.

Commander Zambrano shouted more advice on how to report.

Speak calmly, he said: "Very calmly. Don't be shaking like a goddamn tree. Very calm."

He was not entirely pleased. But not everybody shared his assessment of the crew's performance.

Boe Garrison, 22, a firefighter from Tucumcari, N.M., said, "By my standards, we did pretty good."

Joe Demontalvo, 26, of El Paso, Texas, is a petty officer first class. He was in the Damage-Control Center, which he said is about the safest part of what should be a very safe ship.

He said that because of the ship's armor -- 12 to 17 inches thick -- "they couldn't touch us with some kinds of missile, like an Exocet."

He said he was glad that Congress gave President Bush the authority to use force against Iraq.

"I think that they waited a little too long in Congress to approve it, and I hope that we will not wait now," he said. "Otherwise, all we are doing is giving Saddam Hussein more time."

As the ship plowed on at a steady eight knots, Commander Zambrano said the biggest threat to the ship was mines, mostly because Iraqi missiles are not terribly accurate.

"The threat of a mine hit scenario is very real," he said.

"I do not think that they can hurt us topside."

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