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Feature Story June 12, 2003
 
Gilligan's Gulf
 
 

Retired Navy PR flack Martin Wright exposes the sheer smug stupidity of the US military just before 9-11. Nothing fazes them, even the most obvious threats. The paint is fresh, the chicken nuggets are steaming, an Iraqi smuggler ship is about to ram a multi-billion dollar US warship, so it's full speed ahead with a cast of pettier-than-petty officers, zombie deck hands, and SEALs who won't work days.

It was August in The Persian Gulf. August 2001.

I was standing on the deck of the USS Thach when I saw something that changed the way I looked not just at the Navy but at America as a whole. I was taking pictures of a pudgy sailor painting the thing that hauls in the anchor chain. I was getting a nice reflection of the paint. One of the other painters stood up and pointed portside.

I looked up and there was a ship, a civilian ship about half the size of the Thach, steaming towards us. And nobody was reacting.

Running to catch the last copter off the Thach: lesson number one, always duck when you get near the blades.

Running to catch the last copter off the Thach: lesson number one, always duck when you get near the blades.

I first arrived in the Gulf just ten days after the USS Cole got blasted by suicide bombers who sailed right up alongside in a small boat. I'd watched the caskets being shipped around the base. I never expected to see an unknown boat get this close to another Navy ship again. Yet here was this ship about a hundred feet from us. The guys on the bridge must have known the ship was there, but there were no horns. No sirens. Not even a machine-gun set up, just in case.

I was stationed at the Fifth Fleet's public affairs office in Bahrain. I was something like a sergeant, but really I was a Navy journalist. I'd been sent to the Thach to do a story on MIO, "Maritime Intervention Operations" -- basically, how we were trying to stop the Iraqis from trying to sneak oil through the Gulf. You might still remember the UN sanctions and the embargo.

Iraq was only supposed to sell oil through the Oil for Food program. Of course, Saddam found ways around that problem, piping it out through Syria or trying to run it through the naval blockade. Ships would come out of Iraq's thin strip of gulf-front property and head for the Strait of Hormuz. Seems like an easy gig for the UN forces: just sit and wait at Hormuz, a natural choke-point, and catch the bad guys. Except that Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz and doesn't let US Navy ships wait in its water. But Iran isn't crazy about smugglers' ships either, and was ready to blast any that sailed in their waters too long.

So the runners would ride close to the Iranian border, and the Americans would try to stop them. Now this is where it got hard for the US Navy. Catching another vessel isn't like a friendly game of tag where you get next to the target and then they stop and that's it. Turns out you have to actually board the thing -- something the United States Navy hasn't done on a regular basis since about 1812. They had to get the Coast Guard to teach them how to do it. Anytime the 350,000-strong Navy has to get help from a group smaller than the New York Police Department, something is wrong. (Quick Joke: Know what you do to prevent yourself from drowning if you fall off a Coast Guard ship? Ans: Stand up.)

Now it gets deadly. The Navy has got the Coast Guard boarding ships and training its crews to do the same. So the wily Iraqis start putting metal spikes along the sides of the ships. This just makes the job tougher. What turns things nasty has to do with the fact that once again, this isn't tag. The boat doesn't stop just because you've come aboard. You have to get to the engine room and shut it down. To make this as tough as possible, the Iraqi crews started welding all the portholes and doors shut. The longer it takes for the Coasties and Navy guys to bust through the welds, the better your chance of making it to Iranian waters.


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