Out of the limelight, carrier's escort ships glad to be home, too

Peterson, Leyte Gulf, Vella Gulf are `small boys' with Roosevelt

March 31, 2002|By R.W. Rogers | R.W. Rogers,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Va. - While the media flocked to the USS Roosevelt's homecoming Wednesday, the "small boys" slid into Norfolk Naval Station under cover of anonymity, just like always.

During the long deployment, the Roosevelt and its clutch of warplanes grabbed the public's attention and maybe played upon its desires by pummeling Taliban and al-Qaida forces.

Not coincidentally, the Roosevelt played host to a morning TV show on its way back to Hampton Roads.

Of the Roosevelt Battle Group's 15,000 sailors on 14 vessels, none have gone through more than the sailors of the USS Peterson, USS Vella Gulf and USS Leyte Gulf and other escort ships often referred to as "small boys."

Two sailors from the Peterson died when a run-down freighter they were searching sank in November.

In March, the body of a Vella Gulf officer, temporarily assigned to the Roosevelt, washed up on an Egyptian shore.

While it's possible to slip through the cracks on a large ship, sailors on smaller ones must pull their weight all the time.

The battle group's ships and sailors set a record by remaining at sea a numbing 159 straight days. But there's a difference between spending more than five months at sea on a 1,000-plus-foot aircraft carrier weighing about 100,000 tons and spending that time bobbing around on a 563-foot ship that weighs less than 10,000 tons.

"We had no maintenance availability. We had nothing at all. We had to sustain the ship ourselves," said Leyte Gulf Capt. Cameron Ingram. "And the ship held up magnificently."

"They felt by their hard work and their endeavor," Ingram said, "they helped to make the folks at home a little safer, a little more secure."

Though the small boys were largely overlooked in favor of the Roosevelt, the crews from the Peterson, Leyte Gulf and Vella Gulf were not forgotten.

From Maine to Florida and from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, hundreds of family members and friends shook off hours of chilly temperatures and mean wind to welcome them home.

William Cook drove down from Greensburg, Pa., to take his son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Cook, 23, home for good.

Cook's enlistment on the Peterson ended in January, but "he extended for three months because he felt an obligation to his country and shipmates. He didn't want to let people down," said his father.

Matthew knew the two sailors who died in the mid-November boarding.

"He took the loss of those two guys real hard," said William. "But he said the rest of the crew had a job to do and they were going to do it."

Dave Daniel's son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Daniels on the USS Leyte Gulf, also was touched by the deaths.

"When the ship sank, he was involved with recovering the bodies," said Daniels, a retired Army chief warrant officer from outside Memphis, Tenn. "That was more than a 20-year-old should have to see. But he was proud to go and do something for the country."

In some ways all homecomings are the same. But a small boy's homecoming is more intimate than the return of a carrier.

As the Leyte Gulf cut the corner and closed to the pier, a cheer went up as the loop of patriotic bunting around the gray bow came into view. On the ship's side hung a huge U.S. flag. The sailors manning the cruiser's rail were close enough for the families to see their smiles.

"Does anyone see Daddy?" asked Ashleigh Taylor, 6.

"I see him. I see Daddy," said her 8-year-old sister, Kathleen. The two had shimmied their way to the front of the crowd.

Another cheer erupted when the first coil of line arced from the ship to the shore.

"Daddy, I got you a rose," said Kathleen, holding a red carnation.

"This is a rose. I got it for my daddy because he is the best and I love him so. Yes, yes, yes," she sang to a tune in her head.

The order "secure manning the rails" was given and the sailors gave a shout. A minute later, "liberty call, liberty call" was ordered and the sailors poured down the gangway in a white-capped blue blur.

No one said a lot. If six months of anxiety and longing is a language, it is spoken in silent tears, tender embraces and a fast walk to the parking lot.

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