It was raining lightly at the Yokosuka Naval base as my son Paul parked the car near the pier where his ship, the USS Midway, was moored. The sun ducked in and out of the rain clouds often enough to lighten the grayness of the huge ship rising up from the pier like a forbidding mountain of steel. She'd just returned from a six-month patrol in the Persian Gulf, and the giant blue cranes rising above the flight deck were refitting the ship and readying her for sea duty again. A new non-skid covering was being applied to the flight deck. Marines with M-16 rifles patrolled the pier carefully watching the activity as Japanese shipyard workers scurried about their duties. The ship sails again in August, and her destination is classified. But it will be dispatched from Yokosuka to protect American interests in that area of the world.
Paul is an aviation boatswain mate first class and, like all the men on the Midway, is extremely proud of his ship. He could hardly wait to show us aboard.My wife Janice, Paul's wife Yuko, Paul and I received permission to go aboard. We ascended the gangplank and entered the huge hangar deck; it was like walking into a covered, empty stadium. Paul explained that while his ship is in port its planes are housed at Atsugi Naval Air Station nearby. We were able to visit the base later and see the F-18 Hornets, the A6 bombers, the EA6b's used for electronic warfare, the KA6 tankers and the HS12 helicopters used for anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue.
It was open house on the Midway, and we saw groups of Japanese businessmen, sailor's wives and children, and others walking about, inspecting this awesome machine of war close up.
As we toured the ship meeting some of Paul's co-workers, officers and chiefs, he gave us a capsule history of the Navy's oldest operations carrier.
In 1965, operating as part of Task Fork 77 in the Gulf of Tonkin, Midway's aircraft flew 11,900 combat missions against North Vietnam. Midway aircraft were responsible for downing the first three North Vietnamese MiGs. For their performance they received the Navy Unit Commendation and the Battle Efficiency "E" marking her as the outstanding carrier in the Pacific Fleet. She returned to Alameda in 1966 and underwent the most extensive modernization ever completed on a naval vessel. That made the World War II vintage carrier operationally equivalent to the newest conventionally powered carriers. Her decks were expanded from 2.82 to 4.02 acres, and new elevators, arresting gear machinery and catapults were installed.
Midway returned to the South China Sea with a crew of 4,500 and launched 6,000 missions. In 1975, during the evacuation of South Vietnam the ship removed 3,073 evacuees.
Paul told us this was before he joined the Navy in 1979. He said when hostilities between Iran and Iraq escalated in 1983 he was with the ship when she was deployed in the Northern Arabian Sea where she set a record of 111 continuous days of operation at sea. Of course the ship has been back in that area again. Midway left in November 1987 and returned in April 1988. During that time the men were on station in the Persian Gulf where 14-hour workdays were the norm. With Iraqi and Iranian aircraft overhead, Russian ships nearby, Iranian gunboats, Iranian mines, continual vigilance was and is the key to survival.
I asked Paul what incident was the most poignant in his memory. He thought for a moment and said "back in 1980 we were patrolling the South China Sea and picked up some `boat people.' They were crowded into an old leaking vessel, starving and thirsty - men, women and children huddled together stoically awaiting death when the Midway spotted them drifting aimlessly. We took them aboard, clothed and fed them and even became friends. We dropped them off in Singapore, and I don't know what ever happened to them - but I've never forgotten those starving, hopeless faces looking at us as we pulled them aboard. Some were too weak to walk so we carried them . . ."
As we continued our tour, my wife and I realized how old we were getting as we twisted and turned through the bowels of the ship, climbing up and down ladders, feeling the closeness of the steel bulkhead. I wonder what it would be like when the loudspeakers blare "general quarters" (battle stations) and 4,000 sailors move quickly to their appointed places awaiting an enemy attack.
Paul wanted to show us his quarters, but sailors were still aboard and the crew's quarters were off limits to women, so Paul and I took our wives to the car and returned to the ship where he showed me his quarters where the petty officers bunk. I asked him if there were other Utahns in the 4,000-member crew, and Paul said there were but he doesn't get much time to visit while they are at sea.
As we talked to some of the men I was in a strange, almost alien world. My day consists of going to a routine 8-to-5 job, mowing grass and planting flowers at home and going for a nightly stroll. War, killing and mayhem are the furthest things from my mind. Oh I see the nightly news - the violence and killing, but I remain detached and immune. But here I was talking to these young warriors who discuss the killing capabilities of the F-18 fighter with its "gatling guns," which fire over 3,000 rounds a minute, computer controlled missiles, and the tremendous skills of the pilots who fly them. Paul said that the pilots are probably as good as any and may be the best in the world! Paul and his crew do everything possible to ensure their safety. I asked him if he'd ever seen a plane crash while landing or taking off and he told me he had. "A Navy jet is graceful and controllable in the air but is like a cow on a wet kitchen floor when it gets down on the undulating flight deck. A wrong move can send it rolling across the deck and into the water, drowning the crew inside before we can get to them." A Midway pilot backed up my son's assessment. "It's like landing on a bobbing postage stamp at 150 miles per hour!" Every precaution is taken to keep the pilots as well as the men on deck alive.
The men talk of the big Russian carrier, Leonid Breshnev, and wondered if her crew and pilots would have to go through all of the hazardous training of the Americans to gain the confidence and technical expertise to become a formidible foe. It takes years of training to become "battle ready," as all Navy carrier personnel will testify.
The Midway is commanded by Capt. R.A. Wilson, and the executive officer is Capt. Shipe. Both are extremely well-qualified, and the morale of their men seemed extremely high. In fact, I found their patriotism almost at a fever pitch. These sailors and Marines, to a man, were proud to be Americans, proud to be showing the Stars and Stripes in trouble areas of the world. I didn't want to indulge in politics, but I had the distinct impression that anyone who said anything derogatory about President Reagan might be in imminent physical danger!
Surprised but pleased I asked, why such loyalty? An older chief petty officer summed it up: "President Reagan provides us with the tools we need to get the job done. We're up against some pretty tough odds out there, so it's nice to have the finest men and equipment to protect America's interests. It hasn't always been like that. I remember a time when part of the fleet couldn't even put to sea because of faulty engines. Planes couldn't get up. We couldn't get parts . . ." Several others nodded in agreement.
My son's "air boss" is Capt. B.J. Craig. He was most complimentary of Paul's ability in supervising some the men who launch and recover aircraft. Craig is responsible for the Air Department, Launch and Recovery, Deck Handling and Fueling, which involves about 600 men. Paul told me the sailors can be identified by the different colored sweaters they wear when working - yellow, called "yellow jackets" (Paul is a yellow jacket) aircraft directors; brown, plane captains (servicing aircraft); red, ordnancemen (crash and salvage); blue, chockmen; purple, fuels, green, catapult and arresting gear and aircraft maintenance.
Because the Midway is the only "forward deployed" American carrier (home-based in a foreign port), all her officers and men are on 96-hour alert. Whenever trouble is brewing and American interests are threatened the ship can get under way and be there in record time. All other carriers are home based in the United States.
What's it like for a young man from a land-locked state like Utah to serve on an aircraft carrier that logs many thousands of miles annually in the South China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, as well as the Persian Gulf?
Paul Foster, ABH-1, graduated from Cottonwood High School in 1979 and joined the Navy when he was 17. He's served six years on the Midway and had a short respite of land duty at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Fallon, Nev.
I asked Paul if his enthusiasm for Navy life has been diminished after the six-month patrol in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps he'd like to get out, settle down to an 8-to-5 job, mow the grass, trim the bushes and do the routine things civilians do?
He grinned. "Navy life's not all that bad, Dad. When I'm directing the launching of the planes it's only 130 degrees on deck from the screaming jet engines. Feels like the soles of my feet are on fire! You have to be careful you don't get sucked into an engine. But I've got a good bunch of men in my crew. I don't think they like me a lot, but I keep them alive! It's dangerous work. The flight deck is a million accidents waiting to happen. When we're launching, with engines screaming, the huge catapult swooshing the jets down the deck, there is no room for error. One mistake is your last. But enough shop talk, Dad. I really like the Navy. It provides my wife and me a nice home, the pay isn't too bad, good benefits, good promotions _ I'll be a chief petty officer in December.
"It's really an adventure. I love the sea and the travel. I've been places and seen things most people only read about or see in the movies. On this last cruise we took a few days of R&R and went to Mombasa, Keyna. We were able to go into the African jungle and see many different animals. Always something new and exciting to see and do.
I don't think I could ever settle down to an 8-to-5 job."
"And what about your wife, Yuko?" I asked him.
"She supports me 100 percent. It's difficult for her to be alone so long taking care of our son. But she has friends and family. Of course it's a hardship, but Yuko is independent. All Navy wives realize that their men will be away from time to time. It goes with the job. We miss each other terribly. But we've learned to live with separations."
And so have Paul's mom and I. It was difficult for us nine years ago as we watched an apprehensive 17-year-old go off to Navy Boot Camp in San Diego. My wife temporarily lost a son, but I lost even more: an excellent golfing partner and a great hunting and fishing companion.
Sitting around the campfire together in our lovely Utah mountains years ago, when Paul was a boy, he'd always ask me to tell him about when I was in the Navy. Perhaps I told him one too many sea stories, for he always wanted to be a sailor.
This May we observed a man _ a highly skilled Navy professional, doing the work he loves, respected by officers and men alike; and we were filled with parental pride in our son's accomplishments.
* Robert L. Foster is a free-lance writer living in Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Jancie, hadn't seen Paul in more than three years. They also met their 18-month-old grandson for the first time.