Reservists work on docks, but not here Unit from Baltimore loads gulf war cargo up, down East Coast

February 03, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Sun Staff Correspondent

Bayonne, N.J. -- Craig G. Rice expected to spend the fall and winter terms stuffing knowledge into students at Deer Park Middle School in Randallstown. Instead, he has been stuffing ships with tanks, Patriot missile launchers, trucks and other necessities of war.

His Army reserve transportation unit, based in the Curtis Bay section of Baltimore, was activated in August, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Since then, Lieutenant Colonel Rice and the approximately 80 others in his unit have shuttled up and down the East Coast, from one port to another, to supervise the loading of ships supporting the huge military buildup in the Middle East.

Dressed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots, Colonel Rice directed longshoremen loading military cargo onto the Navy cargo ship Bellatrix in Bayonne last week.

"Our mission in life is to load vessels," he said while watching trucks go up a steel ramp onto the Bellatrix. "For this equipment to get over there, there have to be people on the home front to send it there."

Colonel Rice and his transportation unit are part of a largely unheralded team of soldiers, civilian mariners and longshoremen working long hours under often difficult conditions to perform a Herculean task: moving huge quantities of heavy equipment and supplies needed by the U.S. military machine in the Arabian desert.

It is hard to imagine just how much material these people are moving to sustain Operation Desert Storm. According to the Navy's Military Sealift Command, the armada of cargo ships under its control has moved 2 million tons of equipment, 1 million tons of supplies in containers and 8.4 million tons of fuel.

As of last week, the Navy said it had 241 cargo vessels with civilian crews at work in the supply effort, which had delivered 339 shiploads. In addition, 62 cargo ships were en route to the Persian Gulf with cargoes, while 71 were on their way back to ports to take on new loads and 20 ships were loading.

The magnitude of the task was suggested by the material marshaled on the docks in Bayonne for the Bellatrix. Acres of storage area alongside the Bellatrix were covered by row after row of vehicles -- low-slung trucks, most of them painted tan for desert warfare but a few still wearing green, black and brown camouflage patterns; earth-moving equipment; and pairs of flatbed trailers, one strapped on top of the other.

At the rear of the dock, troop carriers, their windshields folded down and protected by wooden packing, waited on rail cars to be unloaded and driven onto the ship.

Keeping the material moving is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week effort that is putting a tremendous burden on the people and ships involved. Colonel Rice's unit has been working around the clock, with each soldier averaging 13 to 14 hours of work a day. About once a month, the soldiers get a weekend off to visit home. They have been doing this for months now, moving up and down the Eastern Seaboard to meet whatever ship needs to be loaded next.

The group started out in Wilmington, N.C., moved to Charleston, S.C., then came back up the coast to Bayonne. Jacksonville, Fla., was next. Last week found them back at the Army's Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne.

In late August, the reserve unit was activated for 90 days. That period has been extended through late February, but Colonel Rice has no illusions that he will be back in the classroom this spring. He expects to be loading ships for some time to come. "Until we're released from active duty, we'll keep doing it," he said.

The civilian dockworkers who drive the cargo on board or guide it into place as it is lowered into the holds by the ship's cranes are also working punishing hours.

"We work till we finish," said Nicholas Furina, hiring boss of the crews, which are drawn from the ranks of the International Longshoremen's Association. The stevedores are working long shifts, sometimes 24 or 30 hours at a stretch with only four or five hours off between starts, he said. "They're tired, but because of the war, they're extending themselves," he said.

AThe demands of the sealift are just as evident aboard the ship as they are ashore. The importance of the ship's mission has meant considerable hardship for the civilian mariners who make up the Bellatrix's crew.

Chief Mate David Kelly, a 36-year-old resident of Gainesville, Fla., has been on board since Sept. 21. During the ship's three voyages in that time he has been working virtually non-stop. Now he'd like a rest. Normally, he would now be entitled to some shore leave. But because of a shortage of seamen caused by the sudden surge in U.S.-flag ships required by the sealift, Mr. Kelly's union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, District 2, was been unable to find someone to replace him.

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