Gotcha, smuggler

USS Fife returns triumphant from gulf patrol for Iraq oil outlaws


Herald Writer

EVERETT — It was all in a day’s work when 19-year-old Molly Smith caught the most-wanted oil smuggler in the Persian Gulf.

Smith is an electronic warfare technician on the USS Fife, a destroyer that returned Friday to the Everett Naval Station after six months in the gulf.

The job sounds intimidating, but it can be pretty boring, she said. Basically, it means she sits and monitors a radar screen and listens to the intercepted signals.

"We’re staring at the screen all day, but it’s never anything interesting," she said Friday.

Fife sailors boarded about 25 ships during the deployment. Five of those were suspected of trying to smuggle out oil the Iraqi government was trying to sell for cash, rather than for the humanitarian supplies it’s allowed to exchange for the oil under U.N. sanctions.

The Venture, a merchant vessel from Honduras, was the most notorious. It was No. 1 on the 5th Fleet’s "Most Wanted Smugglers" list.

"I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal, when I found him," she said. "I said, ‘Here’s the Venture, I’m gonna go eat dinner,’ and then I got a call from the captain and 20 minutes later he gave me a medal."

The Venture had evaded the 5th Fleet for several years, said the Fife’s captain, Cmdr. John Field. The ship always stayed close enough to territorial waters to slip back into them as soon as a U.S. Navy ship came after it.

The Venture had also been adept at changing its radar signal to try to trick the sailors tracking it.

But Smith was on to that ploy. When she came on duty that evening in June, she was given a list of the radar numbers to look for. The last ones used by the Venture were among them.

In the meantime, the Venture had changed its signal and reverted to one it had used in the past. Because Smith had written down all the signals the ship had used before, she was able to identify it in time.

The Fife immediately raced full-speed ahead to block off the Venture. The suspected smuggler tried its usual run for territorial waters, Field said, but the Fife was able to circle around again and catch her.

That catch was the highlight of the six-month deployment to enforce U.N. sanctions against Iraq, Field said. He immediately gave Smith a Navy Achievement Medal for her efforts, and all the Fife sailors received a glowing "well done" from the 5th Fleet the next day. Smith, originally from Sacramento, has lived in Everett since she was assigned to the Fife in March 1999.

Field also praised his crew upon its return to Everett on Friday for being "terrific ambassadors" for the U.S. during port visits in Australia, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Field took over the ship while it was en route to the gulf in the beginning of April, and a new executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Pearson, came on board during the return trip.

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