I’m putting this week’s blog post out today, because it is an anniversary for me. It was my third Thanksgiving during my four year stint in the Navy, and the second one not spent at home (1988 was simply because I was going to school in Illinois; I made it home in 1989). But it was also the day my ship got back from a special operation. Those of us who did not have the “duty section” that first night back trickled out, not unlike any other day returning from sea. I recall spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas at a married shipmate’s apartment in Silverdale that year. That particular shopping Mecca of Kitsap County looked a lot different than it does today.
The Navy tries to get sailors home for holidays when they can, and in my 26 years as a Naval Shipyard civilian, we had shipwrights and riggers come in on a holiday many times to help get ship’s tied to pier and brows landed to get those sailors connected to their loved ones. But I will always remember that one the most fondly. It ended a two-month-long special op that had daily attention from President Bush.
Operation Steel Box was but one leg of a much larger op called Golden Python. OGP’s mission was to move chemical, biological, and radiological weapons out of Germany as the split country went through the reunification process. I have zero facts about all of the elements to get those nasty critters to where we picked them up. But it does make for an interesting read on the Wiki, even knowing they probably got a few key details wrong. For instance, that site claims the op was over about the time I was joining it. They’re referencing the portion to secretly transport the weapons from the Army weapons depot in country to the port at Nordenham on Germany’s northern coast. Mind you, the public was completely unaware, though the skeptical local German was probably questioning the level of truck and train activity. These nasty munitions filled two Military Sealift Command ships: SS Gopher State and SS Flickertail State.
The USS Bainbridge (CGN-25) escorted those two ships from Germany to Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, where yours truly was waiting with his crew on the USS Truxtun (CGN-35). You’ll notice the “N” in those ship’s designators. That stands for ‘nuclear’, as in nuclear-powered. And that is a key point in this story. The two merchant ships were large enough to have enough fuel capacity for the trip. Maybe they refueled along the way on the Atlantic half, too; I don’t know for sure. But Navy combatant ships will typically top-off every three days, and could probably sustain for two weeks un-refueled before they were in big doo-doo. But in using nuc-powered cruisers, they did not have to send a refueling ship along for the mission. Even if that voyage was going to take six-months, it would’ve been a non-factor for Truxtun and Bainbridge. [The Navy now only has two types of nuclear ships: aircraft carriers and submarines. I've always felt that was a huge strategic error.]
We relieved the Bainbridge of her duty for maintaining the security of all those weapons. Daily we conducted battle drills in gas masks and MOPP gear, from fending off small boat attacks to those by plane or surface battle group. Our ship’s primary damage control parties drilled daily, too. That isn’t unusual, but they were also mixing into that training the ability to climb into our various small boats and get transported to the merchants, in case they needed to help with an emergency. It was boring and long and slow. My ship could’ve cut circles in the ocean around those big merchants. If (BIG if) I recall correctly, we averaged about 12 knots. Men (there were no women permanently assigned on combatant ships in 1990) were running out of cigarettes; and chewing tobacco; and patience. We’d only just gotten back from a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf on July 30th, and the crew that ran the ship’s entertainment had not yet swapped out our copies of “Road House” or “Major League”. To say TV at sea during downtime was stale in the pre-internet days would be doing things that are actually stale a huge injustice. Cue a bluesy guitar riff: “His name… is DALTON…” “I thought you’d be bigger…” “That baseball’s got contrails, it got outta here so fast!” Oy vey, a guy can get sick of watching the same two movies for months on end…
I’m not sure the day we arrived at Johnston Atoll. The Wiki claims a date, but that is probably the day the two merchants were done being unloaded. Whatever day we arrived, the smokers (most of whom were without smokes for a good week or two by this point) were begging the crew of the Captain’s gig (a small craft going ashore for a bit) to find some on shore. Little did we know how desolate that place is… [Johnston Atoll made a cameo appearance at the very end of Blood Red Sky. I seriously doubt it had a store, even back when it was fully operational.]
It is a small, military-crafted island, but it does not say “Made in China” on the runway. It’s about 900 or a thousand miles southwest of Hawaii. It had a big island with a long runway and a few smaller islands, and it had one purpose: to house a super incinerator. They literally burnt all of that nastiness up and released the vapors back to Mother Earth. Our captain had to go ashore for a couple of hours, but after that we skedaddled. We did hit Pearl Harbor to get some badly needed food on the way back to Bremerton. And the smokers and chewers finally managed to score their tobacco.
On November 22nd, 1990, we made it back from our eighth month at sea for the year. We landed on our usual Charlie Pier at what is now Naval Station Bremerton. [The whole thing was considered part of the shipyard in those days.] I remember it was cold and drizzly, but I was relieved that unlike the other major deployments, they didn’t make us wear the ‘Cracker Jacks’ uniforms for coming home.
The following year, on whatever day Thanksgiving was, my ship was the one ship in the Persian Gulf that did not get to pull into Bahrain or Jebel Ali for a long weekend. As the assigned lead element of air defense warfare, we were out there covering everyone else from airborne enemies, of which there are plenty in that part of the world. And then as a civilian in 2011, I was working for a couple of months in San Diego. An emergent need for a part off that carrier for another that was about to deploy came up. I and a couple of my guys came in at 0230 and worked a very early Thanksgiving with a few people from other trades to ensure that component (about a third the size of a car) got crated up to send to Everett.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 33 years since then. And though a boring and mundane trip, it was a worthy one—cool to be part of a large-scale secret mission to rid the world of some of its greater sins. Thanks for reading along. May you and your loved ones have a blessed, warm, and safe Thanksgiving holiday. And if you use American Express, remember—“Don’t steal home without it!”