Before my trip from Norfolk, Va. to New York City aboard the USS Wasp, the sum of my Navy experience was an exchange several years ago with a naval recruiter who tried to convince me to join the Navy’s nuclear program instead of the Army.So when I applied to sail with the crew of the wasp as they headed to Fleet Week 2012, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
Given what I know of the military, both from my time in the Army and writing about it the past several months at Business Insider, I imagined I’d be babysat and very restricted in where I could go and what I could photograph. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The tight lipped, security and image conscious public statements I’d come to expect from the military simply weren’t there.
The ship’s public affairs officer told me to go anyplace that wasn’t secured and rushed off to handle the long list of distinguished visitors, and soon to arrive reporters, who would be flying in the night before we arrived in New York harbor.
So I went everywhere I could, which wasn’t as easy as I’d have thought with the heaving seas, narrow corridors, steep stairways, and tiny bulkhead doors with tall steps to navigate every time you pass through.
But it was interesting, as I think the following photos will show, and well worth the trip.
The sailors and Marines I met were helpful beyond all reasonable expectation, and went out of their way to allow me to see everything I wanted. One girl even lent me her only float vest and wound up taking some grief from her fellow sailors because of it — Rainey, you know what I’m talking about.
The Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval station in the world with 75 US Navy ships calling it their permanent home
With thousands of sailors calling the place home it is like a small city—where the Domino's Pizza driver has to wait for payment by the guards armed with automatic weapons
This is the vessel I am here to see — the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp that hosted me for a three day trip to New York
The entrance to the ship is heavily manned and all military members must turn and salute the 'national ensign' or national flag when boarding
Then when troops step inside they salute the officer of the deck who stands here by the quarterdeck and ask permission to come aboard — that girl did a lot of saluting
The USS Wasp is set up to transport Marines and when I was there the ship held more than 1,100 of them — normally the Wasp would take them to whatever distant shore their mission demanded and drop them off, but this trip was to take them to NYC for Fleet Week for a bit of R&R
This Marine took a moment to show me the inside of his M1A1 Abrams tank and where he sits when he drives
While another group let me get in their way and climb aboard this amphibious armoured personnel carrier while they were giving it some maintenance
The far end of the well deck opens up and allows hovercraft and amphibious vehicles to just cruise onboard — that process is controlled from this room
The hovercraft (called an LCAC) was brought aboard while we were on a 'man overboard' drill so I missed it pulling in — but it's massive — and carried in this Humvee with it
It's hard to imagine how spacious the inside of a Humvee is until you see it — the circle in the roof is where the big 50-calibre machine gun would go
The cockpit of the hovercraft is a super-reinforced metal cube designed to withstand the most damaging of attacks
From the well deck I headed down below — the stairs are steep and the ship is constantly rocking — at least one hand on the railing at all times is required
On my way back up from seeing one of the bottom-most decks — six flights down — I ran into these sailors taking a break from painting the stairwell and Seaman Xu was good enough to bring me to the engine room
Where I was promptly, but politely, told to get the hell out and go put on a long sleeve shirt — full arm protection is required because the pipes and fittings outside this room are so hot
So Xu showed me how to slide down the railings of the stairs and we went back to my room so I could get properly attired for the hot steamy depths of the boiler room
It's over 110 degrees here even with all this insulation over the boilers and pipes — sailors can only work here for a limited time before heading back into cooler quarters
From the bridge, commands come down here to let these sailors know how much power to provide the engines
MMFN Odaime Tomlinson poses by one of the boilers he oversees and tells me there are two of them — producing 400 tons of steam per hour at pressures that could cut someone in half were there a leak
In addition to the boilers — the Wasp contains two geared turbine engines whose fuel needs to be constantly monitored and tested
The fuel samples are taken to Engineering Officer LCDR McNeil who can sometimes tell what's up with the samples just by looking at them
HM2 Susana Peevey explains there is a full operating suite and capabilities to keep 60 wounded in the ICU and the Ward — the Wasp's hangar deck (where the Marines were in formation) can also hold hundreds of additional patients
From medical, we head to Xu's enlisted sleeping quarters that he shares with another 599 sailors from the ranks of E-1s to E-6
Clearly not all 600 sailors will fit into this small TV room where one sailor is trying to catch a few Zs when the ship's horn announces we are about to shove off
I get on deck just as the ship parts from the dock — the only thing I can compare it to would be standing in a Walmart parking lot that suddenly separates from the store and slips into the distance
As the tugs back away, I feel the Wasp start to move under its own power and I take one final look at the Norfolk pier skyline
While up by the bridge, the Phalanx laser guided Gatling gun comes out — the Phalanx delivers up to 4,500 rounds per minute toward any incoming missiles
And then we are all herded back behind the Long Range Acoustic Device which can deliver messages across the water in a variety of languages as well as painful tones that have been used to counter piracy
On the way out of Norfolk Harbor all the Marines and Sailors on deck line up and salute a rare sight — this incoming submarine headed home
Now that we're underway the crew and the Marines fall to their normal duties that include everything from cleaning the flight deck ...
to taking apart, cleaning, and putting back together the MK19 machine gun that rides with the amphibious armoured personnel carrier ...
All under the watchful eye of the Captain — who was not terribly thrilled with all my picture taking on the bridge
Apparently I still carry an enlisted soldier's healthy aversion to annoying an O-6 — for I'm compelled to quit the bridge for the quieter Debark Control Room to watch a few aircraft
Followed by an incoming Sea Stallion whose prop wash is so powerful it lifts the seas far below into a fine rainbow mist
Finally, the Harrier 'jump jet' came pounding to the flight deck from the east and settled down amid a cloud of dust
And navigating my way to bed in the dim red light that bathes the inside of the Wasp at night — the red keeps the vessel from being seen by the enemy and maintains sailor's night vision
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