My tour on board the USS Saipan, LHA2 would prove to be an adventure. I transitioned from a cozy shore duty billet to a floating deck in 1988.We would deploy on a Med Cruise in March. Med Cruises are nothing like West Pacs. Especially, on an Amphibious Assault craft with almost 2000 Marines embarked upon her.
LHA’s are built for marines. It allows them to fly to a combat area or disembark onto an enemy shoreline in a landing craft. Our primary concern was assisting the marines. The flight deck would go from one UH1 helicopter to squadrons of H46’s, H53’s, cobra helicopters and Harriers. The lower well deck was crammed full of landing craft with tanks, jeeps, trucks, cannons and everything else the marines would need for a landing operation.
I was attached to the flight decks V-1 Division. I was a First Class Petty Officer, ABH1. With rank generally there is experience. I could lead men, but I would have to learn these flight deck procedures. I chose volunteering to be a blue shirt for a while to gain experience quickly. The Bos’n liked the idea. Blue shirts are assigned menial tasks and are attached to moving crews. Their task is to chalk / unchalk, tie down and untie down the aircraft. Senior petty officers are identified by wearing yellow jerseys. They direct aircraft moves. I was a blue shirt for about a week or so. I would race other blue shirts on each aircraft move. I was given the endearing name of Papa Smurf. The Bos’n liked my position too well though. My hard charging energetic work ethic was causing a trickle down effect on the other blue shirts. Our aircraft moves were smoother than he had ever seen. It took some doing but I was finally released to direct. Launching the awesome Harrier AV-8 aircraft off the deck was my most exciting task. Becoming an LSE is an honor bestowed on few enlisted. Launching duties are restricted to Officers on carriers. Soon I was selected as LPO of the Crash and Salvage (C&S) crew.
C&S was arduous. We trained all the time. We had to know every aircraft inside and out. Be able to extinguish any fire and extract a pilot or crew from their downed aircraft. We train to crane lift damaged aircraft and to possibly jettison aircraft from the ship. We were probably the most prepared crew in the fleet. We rotated watches on deck with our P-25 firefighting vehicles whenever flight ops were under way. With a limited crew and long hours it was a thankless job unless an actual rescue occurred. Luckily, we had no major accidents during my tour. I was thankful not to be standing on the aircraft line for hours as a yellow shirt in rain and wind for an aircraft engine check. Many yellow shirts were glad to be doing that, whenever they saw us strutting around in our heavy, shiny, fire and rescue suit. It was like walking around inside an oven at 200 degrees.
Deployments are not all work. Port calls are scheduled to allow R&R for the crew and ships repairs. We had several good ports. There was Malta, A popular European summer vacation hot spot. Unfortunately we were there in the off season. The beaches were bare and the bars were empty. We stopped off in Cannes, my favorite spot was a hole in the wall bar called the Ratten Holet (Rat Hole). With an English speaking keeper that liked to give sailors free booze. It was Monty Carlo by train on my next liberty call. In Toulon my biggest adventure was learning how to use one of France’s Laundromats. Naples was a short visit but having been there before it was OK to say ciao.
All hell broke out in Liberia and Sierra Leone in May. We floated over 90 days off the coast of Africa doing hundreds of sorties. We evacuated 1600 civilians in what was called Operation Sharp Edge. It was the stories our Lieutenant relayed to us after his trip to shore that afforded a solid understanding of our mission. Tribes were placing chopped off heads on the fence poles around the embassy we were protecting. Our presence kept American heads from having the same done to them. At about that same time the Persian Gulf erupted. Our ship was only one of a few that was not called to serve in Operation Desert Storm. We were OK with that.