Photo: Robert Johnson — Business Insider
Like so much of America, the Navy’s Arleigh Burke destroyers are at retirement age but still facing another couple decades of hard work and making do.
The responsibility for doubling the life expectancy of these saltwater steel ships from 20 to 40 years, while achieving every mission, falls to many people. But in the end — it falls to the crew.
When I got the call to join the USS Barry for a ride off the Atlantic seaboard last week, I expected to meet a staff burdened by duty and unhappy with how the country is dumping money into new technology on trouble-ridden ships.
Instead I met a crew of sailors who worked 12 to 16 hour days without complaint.
I’ve never seen a group of people work so hard to make the most of what they had. The Barry seemed to belong to them and come what may, they would not fail her.
I’m an Army veteran, not a sailor, but I’ll be damned if by the time we pulled back into port, I didn’t have a lot more respect for the Navy.
The Navy picked me up at 5:00 a.m. from a Norfolk motel and delivered us to a water taxi bound for the USS Barry by 7:00
After an hour of heaving seas and whipping saltwater spray, the Barry came into sight idling off the Virginia seaboard
Once aboard, sleeping assignments were provided — the top right bunk was mine. Dozens of enlisted sailors sleep down here, and the nights were filled with mobile phone alarms.
We'd arrived far too late for breakfast in the mess hall. This is the only space on the ship where hats must be removed because during conflict it serves as a medical ward with bodies laid on the tables. Removing caps shows respect for the dead.
From the sonar room I head to see the ship's Engineering Officer who oversees the Barry's full array of power systems. Until just this year that panel of monitors to his right was a bank of dials, knobs, and buttons — one of the many system upgrades as the vessel's life is extended.
In Engineering I meet Chief Francis who is transferring from the enlisted ranks to Warrant Officer. He joined the Navy 18 years ago at 17 and says the only thing he doesn't love about serving is being away from his family.
Chief Francis says he'll miss the camaraderie and fraternal environment of the Chief's Mess where senior NCOs share meals, advice, and determination
Time for lunch, I stop by the Officer's Mess and find the white cards are the menu and officers circle what they want to eat, hand it to a steward and have it delivered
The Captain here in his chair on the bridge doesn't often make it to meals — doesn't often make it to bed either — catching maybe four or five hours of sleep a night
The Captain is waiting for the anchor test to conclude. At several thousand pounds the anchor is attached to the ship by a chain with links weighing almost 40 pounds apiece and here it is being snapped from a free-fall into hundreds of feet of water.
Once the anchor is back in the hold, the crew tests the CIWS Gatling gun — the last line of defence against incoming threats — the CIWS can shoot 4,500 rounds per minute
It's so loud and piercing that despite the fact I'm expecting each burst, I flinch every time it fires and have to draw the camera back to the barrel
Once the CIWS quiets down, the weapons officer prepares the 20mm cannon for testing — first it is fired remotely with a joystick and camera here on the bridge
Then one of the weapons crew grabs a helmet and a flak jacket before firing it off manually down on deck — even behind him I had to wear a vest as well
After returning the flak jacket to the weapons Chief — I wait outside the bridge for the 5-inch gun test and notice small signs of wear on the 20-year-old ship
The Arleigh Burke destroyers were meant to see 20 years of service, but their commitment will likely double and maintenance is becoming a larger part of shipboard service
When the 5-inch gun finally lets loose, the explosion is impressive and the tracking system lays down rounds on both sides of the vessel
With several different types of rounds, the 5-inch is as versatile as it is effective — here are the timed rounds detonating in the distance
With so many complex systems working together the 5-inch can be temperamental — below deck I see the Barry's crew has named their 5-inch, Lucille
While the 5-inch packs quite a punch — what makes it so lethal lies behind this door in the Combat Information centre (CIC)— I was allowed in but not permitted to take pictures
When weapons firing concluded, the ship's flag was changed and the crew settled in for an unusual ride
It's tough to convey speed in a still photo, but this is the wake behind the Barry for the majority of the trip
But as part of the sea trials, the destroyer was driven to her top speed of almost 38 mph and this is what the wake looked like then
For a still day the chop brought about by the ship was immense — and this blast caught me far above the waterline outside the bridge
And the final test of the day threw the ship in reverse — this is the front of the ship trailing a wake as it worked its way backward
Once the onboard tests concluded for the day, crew got busy cleaning the weapons — the red jacketed rounds are live but had not been fired
They're right next to the missile launching system here, that delivered 55 Tomahawk missiles into Libya last year
With the day wearing on I head back inside the ship and am reminded of what the crew knows at all times: this vessel is designed to go to war. In a chemical/biological/radiological (CBR) environment, not even the toilet can be used.
Even in this main passageway a bright yellow sticker reminds crew that the ship could go down at any point
But none of the Barry's sailors need to be reminded; almost all of them pull watch, looking for contact on the horizon and for fellow sailors who have fallen into the water
There are not many places to go to wind down, but out here during a break in routine sailors meet to grab a smoke
After some ice-cream, I head back on deck to wait for a sono-buoy/anti-sub exercise. But after three hours of waiting, I nodded off and realised it was time for bed.
Back inside the air lock, I see that many lights are red now for security and to preserve night vision
So before heading back into the sleeping quarters I grab the flashlight I brought for just such an occasion
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