On board with spirit of TR

SUN JOURNAL

Carrier: As "big sticks" go, they don't get much bigger than the 97,000-ton USS Theodore Roosevelt, patrolling the Mediterranean as war with Iraq nears.

March 19, 2003|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Eastern Mediterranean - A breeze is blowing at 3 knots off the port bow, a black-and-yellow screen on the bridge indicates. The aircraft carrier, doing 14 knots in the hazy sea, is positioning itself to launch a wave of 13 fighter jets on a training mission.

An officer orders an adjustment in the direction of the aircraft carrier. "Left five degree rudder," he says.

"Left five degree rudder, aye, sir," the helmsman replies.

Five stories below, on the flight deck, helmeted crews dressed in red, yellow, green and purple shirts are making last-minute checks to the aircraft.

VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! A great roar shakes the ship from the bridge to the keel as a runway catapult hurls an F-14 Tomahawk fighter from zero to 150 mph in three seconds. The jet is airborne, its afterburner glowing like a dashboard cigarette lighter as the plane gains altitude and begins practicing bombing runs for a likely war against Iraq.

At 1,092 feet long and 97,000 tons, the $4.5 billion Nimitz class nuclear-powered carrier is the world's largest warship. It heads one of six American battle groups here and in the Persian Gulf, forming the backbone of an interventionist policy for which the United States is by turns respected and hated around the globe. That policy echoes the words of the boat's namesake, former President Theodore Roosevelt: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick."

"The Navy brings the might and mission of the United States forward," says Rear Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., who commands the carrier's 10-ship battle group. "Given that 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, we don't need any permission slip to carry out that mission from international waters."

Sailing along with the Theodore Roosevelt is a flotilla of destroyers, frigates and attack submarines. Eighty-five aircraft launch from the carrier's flight decks, ranging from rocket-nosed Tomcats to clunky propeller-driven C-2A Greyhounds, which haul cargo and passengers from shore to the carrier. On the flight deck, where the Hornets and Tomcats roar off armed with Harpoon and Sidewinder laser-guided weapons, it is impossible to forget this ship's purpose as a war-making machine. But down below, the carrier - home to 5,830 sailors and flight crew members - is like a skyscraper on its side, an underground metropolis of cramped apartments and steel corridors.

"We are the city that never sleeps," Capt. Richard O'Hanlon says. "There's something going on 24 hours a day."

There are 17 decks of strategy rooms, hangar space, storage places for explosives, wardrooms for aviators and seamen's bunks so cramped there is no space to roll over in bed. The galleys are stocked with salad bars and dispensers that squirt cheese on your nacho chips. Seamen can chow down on pork chops and eggs for breakfast or fried catfish for lunch.

Though the Theodore Roosevelt bristles with advanced aircraft and arsenals, the decor is as Spartan as a Russian freighter's, with exposed cables and painted steel bulkheads. There are halls that stretch a hundred yards, interrupted every few feet by oval-shaped watertight doors that can be bolted shut.

Staring down the long corridors, you get the curious feeling you are looking into a hall of mirrors: You keep searching for your own face among the people approaching. Day and night, crew members stride through, carrying charts or electrician's toolboxes or bags of garbage or two-by-fours.

The ship's consumption is staggering. On its last six-month cruise, the galley crew fed an average of 444,810 meals a month, says Command Master Chief Beth L. Lambert. The Theodore Roosevelt's barbers shear 2,699 bristly Navy haircuts a month. The carrier has a desalination plant that can produce 12 million gallons of drinkable water a month, and crew members receive 135,833 pounds of mail during the same period.

Lambert, 42, is a unique figure. As the chief in charge of 3,000 enlisted personnel, she is the first woman to achieve her rank on an American carrier. (She even outranks her husband, who serves in a Navy construction battalion in Kuwait.)

Lambert is a good-natured Floridian who tries to keep morale up by making sure the ship has stocked enough sugar dispensers or the kind of iced tea people request. But she is also in charge of disciplining the enlisted, and she can crack down on young sailors (80 percent of the enlisted crew are under 21) who haven't quite gotten the message, say, that nose rings don't cut it in the Navy.

The ship contains the first reserve air squadron mobilized into active duty since the Korean War, 50 years ago. VFA 201's pilots, many of whom fly commercial jets for United and American airlines, are mostly in their 30s and 40s, but they won the so-called Top Hook Award, given to the unit with the highest grade in landing performance. The squadron's aviators have an average of 2,700 hours of flight time in Navy jets, compared with about 800 for the other pilots, says pilot Sean Mousse, 39.

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