KHTS Station Co-owner Carl Goldman spent one day out at sea with the Unites States Navy. The following account details his experience.
It wasn’t my typical weekday morning. True, I was clutching my traditional cup of coffee, but the brisk sea air, crashing waves and sea of uniformed personnel told me this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill day.
I was one of seven community leaders invited to spend a day on a working Naval Warship.
Photo courtesy of the United States Navy
Our journey began early in the morning at the Naval Base on Coronado Island. We were briefed by Captain Pete Gumataotao, Chief of Staff for the Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy in 1981, Captain Gumataotao would be the catalyst for what became clear throughout the day; that our fighting men and women are not only in capable hands, but also all of their leaders are passionate about their responsibilities.
The plan was to fly our group by helicopter about 30 miles out to sea, land on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard and spend the day experiencing life on board an active combat ship. We were part of a program called “Leaders to Sea,” a successful outreach developed by the Navy to reach out and touch community leaders outside the military and allow them to really see how tax dollars are put to use. I was selected by the Department of Defense, through their Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program who assisted with the behind the scenes planning for the day.
The USS Bonhomme Richard is about three-quarters the size of current aircraft carriers, but still big enough to swallow up nearly three full-length football fields. It’s about the same size as previous generation aircraft carriers, such as the Midway, now a museum ship definitely worth touring when visiting San Diego. Building the ship cost about $1 billion and its maintenance and operation costs aren’t inexpensive. The ship was named after the original Bonhomme Richard, built in 1765. It was famous for winning a battle in the Revolutionary War in which Captain John Paul Jones uttered his famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight.”Our group of seven was a cross-section of the Southland. Some had waited three years for this journey. I was the only representative from Santa Clarita and from the media. Others included representatives from law enforcement, land development, an assistant school superintendent, city administrator, and an author.
“We want you to share your experience with others, so they see a different side to the Navy,” Captain Gumataotao told us as we sipped coffee in his office on base. “What you’ll see today is a typical day on board an assault ship. A group of Harriers will be flying in from Yuma, Arizona so their pilots can perform a number of training landings and take-offs.”
I had no idea what a Harrier was, nor did I really have any idea where Yuma, Arizona sat on the map. I’d soon find out.
The Bonhomme Richard is the size of a city, with over 1,200 navy personnel on board.
“The ship’s primary mission is to embark, deploy and land Marines by helicopter, landing craft, amphibious vehicles, and more importantly, get them back safely on board,” Captain Gumataotao informed us. When fully deployed, the ship can handle approximately 3,000 personnel.
“I hope you’ll take this opportunity to not only talk to our officers, but talk to our men and women on board the ship. You’ll find a cross-section of our country. Men and women of all races; many are kids, 19 years old, with no college education and just trying to figure out who they really are,” the Captain reflected. “Feel free to talk to any of them and ask them anything you want.” That mantra became apparent throughout the day.
After a briefing, we boarded a helicopter and headed out to sea.
Our 30-minute helicopter ride took us somewhere between Catalina Island and Camp Pendleton, about 30 miles out to sea. I later learned a typical naval ship will maneuver in a rectangular box, in this case, cruising up and down the coast between Catalina and Pendleton.
As we landed on board, we were greeted by the Commanding Officer, Captain John Funk, also a Naval Academy Graduate (Class of 1984). Captain Funk had only been on board as Captain for a week. He had recently been promoted from Executive Officer of the ship, so he wasn’t an unknown to his crew. Senior Chief Petty Officer Dave Nagle also joined us. Nagle is the Public Affairs Officer for the ship. He and his staff would become our escorts for the day. The ship has a daily newspaper and three websites, one designated strictly for internal use, one for the crew and their families and one for the general public. The public website is accessible at http://www.lhd6.navy.mil/default.aspx.
“Our crew doesn’t have much of a chance to get on the Internet,” Nagle informed us. “And when they do, it’s to answer e-mails and communicate with friends and family. So in many instances, our paper becomes their only source for news.”
Captain Funk led us to a conference room for to join him for breakfast and another orientation.
I soon came to realize the Captain really isn’t the guy we see in the movies. He’s not aloof, like so many CEO’s I know, watching from above, many steps removed from the action on the frontlines. This Captain is rolling up his sleeves and interacting with his crew. There’s a little bit of the Love Boat’s Captain Steubing in him, as he takes on a fatherly role for many of the kids on board.
His main role is more like a combination city manager, football coach and psychologist. Finding the right combination of these ingredients is rare and is what I believe are the key elements to a great leader. It became apparent that Captain Funk not only had all these tools, but was confident and secure enough to have compassion and a wry sense of humor added to the mix.
“Feel free to go anywhere and talk to anyone throughout the day,” the familiar mantra went. “Hear their stories, learn their concerns, see it through their eyes. You’ll discover a broad range of men and women; many are kids, 17, 18, 19 years old, just trying to figure life out. Others have made a career of the Navy. They’re highly focused, trained to be leaders.”
During the morning, we toured the bowels of the ship. We began on the hangar deck, which is the size of nearly three football fields, and the spot where many of the aircraft not on-deck are normally stored and serviced. It looked like a giant garage. Expansive open elevators on each side of the deck maneuvered aircraft from the flight deck above. Unlike aircraft carriers, the Bonhomme Richard, like other amphibious assault ships, not only serves as a floating airport, it also handles an entire marina of floating vessels.
We walked down a very long ramp, traveling down several levels. I felt as if I were walking through a tunnel in the Los Angeles Coliseum. We entered the Well Deck and were greeted by its keeper, a young man who was passionate about his area of responsibility. He reminded me of our radio station engineers, the guys who would feed much more information than we’d to know and throw out nomenclature that could easily be a foreign language. In this case, I was wrong.
We looked down onto a sloping floor. Moist wood planks covered the bottom of an area, also what appeared to be almost the size of a football field (am I beginning to sound redundant?). “This is where we hold our amphibious craft,” the young man informed us.
All I saw was a large empty space. As we walked down the sloping damp wood floors to the stern of the ship, I realized just how many amphibious craft could fit into that space. It was enormous. The stern of the ship contained a “gate” about 30 feet high that swung down into the ocean. Once opened, the ocean entered the craft, filling up to area we were standing on and working its way up the slope, and I imagine, stopping about two stories above where we were standing. The wooden planks were spaced with metal fixtures about every 10 feet, allowing crafts to hook onto to keep them in place. When deployed, these craft can deliver 2,400 Marines onto the shore.
Our group hiked back up to the hangar deck, where a representative from the ship’s safety team showed us a variety of tools on hand to anticipate any emergency. It was only then, after being on board the ship for several hours that I realized this ship, when deployed is a primary target during an attack. These guys need to be prepared for every nightmarish scenario. The safety crew took us through a variety of those possibilities. It all seemed serene now as we sailed off the coast of Catalina, but in a few months, the Bonhomme Richard could easily find itself patrolling the coast in the Middle East and some of those potential threats could become very real.
We worked our way over to the ship’s hospital. As we did, we witnessed a line of crew, waiting to get vaccines. The ship is a floating hospital, designed to handle not only injuries from Marines who may be fighting on land, but also injured sailors from other ships in the fleet who don’t have as extensive a medical facility as the Bonhomme Richard.
We toured the operating and x-ray rooms, a lab, intensive care post op, dental office and the main care room for stabilized patients. The ship’s doctor, Commander Eileen Hoke, a bright and outgoing woman who appeared to have a bedside manner far superior to most of the doctors I know, shared many of the challenges she faced. Unlike a civilian hospital, the hospital aboard the Bonhomme Richard has to be prepared for many major casualties without the ability to obtain new supplies. While some plasma, for instance is stored in freezers, often it’s the ships crew that will be supplying additional blood if needed.
In many ways, the Bonhomme Richard needs to be self-sufficient. “I never let our gas tanks get below three quarters of a tank,” Captain Funk relayed. “If we ever get below a half a tank, I’m figuring out exactly how more days and hours we can continue without refueling. We’re keeping a very close watch.”
“When fully deployed with a full crew and the Marines on board, there’s enough food to last several weeks.”
“And even longer if necessary, but we’d have to do a bit of rationing,” the head of the kitchen informed me later in the morning.
I asked about the water. “We make our own water,” Captain Funk proudly revealed. “The water you’re drinking on board this ship is coming from the ocean.” The Bonhomme Richard converts over 200,000 gallons of salt water into fresh water everyday.
“Most people don’t realize we also serve as a humanitarian force,” the Captain continued. “Naval ships like ours have been on the front lines for most major disasters. Katrina, tsunami’s, earthquakes; we’re there with our drinking water, providing medical attention and delivering supplies.”
Another light bulb went off in my head as my knowledge and appreciation for the Navy expanded another notch. I also realized why I never became a military officer because the entrepreneur in me would have been bottling that water and selling it as a boutique drink to the trendy westside Southern California restaurants. “Bonhomme Richard Aqua – Try a taste of ‘the bomb.’ The Official Beverage of the United States Navy.”
Our next stop was the mess hall and the kitchens. One shift of the crew was already eating their lunch. As we toured the galley (kitchen) area, the logistics of feeding 1,200 hungry sailors became apparent. One big vat was thawing out more than one thousand pounds of turkey, all of which would be consumed at dinner time. Machines were on-hand to cover many tasks. A giant electronic vegetable slice, dice and peel machine shattered any old illusions I had of sailors peeling mounds of potatoes during KP duty.
We hit a lucky day. Wednesday lunch was hamburgers, which we’d soon be enjoying while dining in the Officers’ dining room.
“This is the chance my staff has to bond,” Captain Funk informed me as we sat for lunch. “We don’t eat with the crew. Our food is the same, but it gives my officers a chance to connect and to be honest, it gives the crew a chance to unwind without their officers looking over their shoulders. I believe they prefer not to have us around during mealtime.”
Our group was divided during lunch, with an officer sitting in between each civilian, giving us an opportunity to bond, as well.
I was introduced to a young woman at the end of our table, Ensign Katrina Moffett. “She’s only 21,” Captain Funk proudly relayed, “(and) there are many shifts throughout the week when she’s commanding the entire ship.” I thought about my own maturity at 21 and realized I had enough challenges commanding my 1974 Toyota Celica, let alone a billion dollar warship with thousands of lives on the line. Ensign Moffett shared her personal story with us and after sharing a few sentences, I realized the ship was in very capable hands during her watch.
After lunch, we visited the combat information center, or war room. It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Our group was able to witness a re-enlistment. A member of the crew had finished her tour of duty and was reapplying for another tour. Generally they “re-up” for an additional two, three or four years.
The Captain joined us and watched as an officer led the ceremony. The re-enlistee was presented with an honorary discharge certificate and for a few brief moments, remained as a civilian as she emotionally shared a few words with her audience about her love for the Navy and her reasons for wanting to reenlist. Next came the actual reenlistment ceremony. The sailor was presented with a check for a few thousand dollars as an enticement to reenlist. I learned the size of the check varies significantly depending on how badly the Navy wants an individual to remain enlisted.
Throughout the ceremony, it became apparent the officers and crew of the Bonhomme Richard were closely connected. Individuals flow in and out as they are transferred to other assignments on other ships in other parts of the world, but it seemed to me that each individual was a part of one big family…. the Navy Family.
Our next stop was up on an observation deck as we looked down onto the flight deck and watched a number of Harriers take off and land. The Harriers are airplanes that fly like a jet, but can hover and land like a helicopter. The Harriers landing on the Bonhomme Richard were flying in from Yuma, Arizona. Their pilots were in training, testing landings and take-offs. In this case, a Harrier would rev up its engines, then when given the “all clear sign,” shoot down the flight deck, gaining enough speed to become airborne as it ran out of runway with only the ocean below. After disappearing over the horizon, the plane would reappear, passing our ship in the opposite direction, then turn back toward the ship. When almost perpendicular to the Bonhomme Richard, the plane would stop, like a stop-action video. It would very slowly, almost eerily start descending, angling in from the port side of the ship and landing right on the bulls-eye cross on the landing strip. We watched a number of these take-offs and landings, and probably could have spent the remainder of the day, engrossed in the uniqueness of the exercise.
We worked our way to the bridge of the ship. I watched as a 17-year-old sailor steered the ship. Most of the crew on deck looked young, very young. But like the young naval officer at lunch, it became apparent these kids could handle the job. As the Captain commented to me, “many aren’t old enough to legally drink in California, but they are mature enough to maneuver a billion dollar warship.”
And for me, that became the best symbolism of the day. Understanding we were in good hands, from a very capable Captain and staff of officers, down to the 17-year-old kids, focused on doing a great job, everyone knowing their purpose, having an ownership in their areas of responsibility and proud of the job they were doing.
We toured the crews’ living quarters; bunks on top of bunks on top of bunks. In some areas, the bunks actually went up four levels. There were enough bunks to sleep 3,500 personnel. The space was cramped and it was easy to imagine becoming claustrophobic and difficult to imagine going months without having very much space or privacy.
Walking back through the hangar deck, we climbed down through a manhole cover and worked our way down several ladders, going down a number of decks; our destination, the engine room. It was hot and very noisy. We stuffed earplugs in our ears, so a good portion of the discussion with the crew was lost on me. We peered through a glass and saw the steam reactor. Flames blazed like an ignited rocket engine. The room next to the engine housed the fresh water converter. It converts 200,000 gallons of salt water to fresh water each day. The water boils in a pressurized chamber, turning into steam. The steam, when cooled, becomes fresh water, more than enough to cover the daily needs of the ship and capable of being distributed to others in times of crisis.
As we capped off the day and said our goodbyes, our group left with a very different picture of the Navy than what we had imagined at the start of the day.
I have been a strong supporter of our military. I have a special affinity toward the commitment needed, especially since my oldest son is currently working through his third year at the United States Military Academy at West Point. But as we flew back to Coronado on the helicopter, I felt even more proud to be an American and privileged to have witnessed a day in the life of the 1,200 very committed American Naval personnel aboard the Bonhomme Richard.