Simulated war gets carrier crew ready

Associated Press

ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS — Fighter pilots craft messages to scrawl in chalk on their bombs. Sailors load cases of antibiotics to repel biological weapons. A young enlisted man makes his first will.

Aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, the crew of 5,000 is preparing for a deployment that will almost certainly carry them to hostile waters far from home.

"Everyone on the crew is anxious," said Amber Chalmers, a 28-year-old corpsman, or medic, from Milpitas, Calif. "Everyone is taking things very seriously."

The crew began a final round of exercises Friday about 100 miles off San Diego. The eight days of simulated war is the last step before the carrier, six other ships and two submarines in its battle group head to the Persian Gulf — a move the Navy says will happen soon.

Though the Navy won’t disclose the battle group’s exact plans, the Stennis is expected to replace the Bremerton-based carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Middle East.

The Navy has announced that the Stennis, too, will be assigned to Bremerton starting in 2004.

Officers and crew said the mission could change if the war on terrorism evolves before the Stennis and its 70 aircraft arrive on the scene in about a month. Many on board the Stennis have been thinking about Sept. 11.

"It’s not like you want to get revenge, but you want to make sure justice is done," said Lt. Mike Croker, 29, a fighter pilot from Boston.

Another pilot, Cmdr. Owen Honors of Syracuse, N.Y., visited the ruins of the World Trade Center before joining the Stennis to help visualize the purpose of the mission.

Some pilots and ordnance crews planned to put those feelings into words in chalk messages on the bombs they drop.

Capt. R.C. Thompson, commander in charge of aircraft on the Stennis, said he would write the flight numbers of the two American Airlines jets used in the Sept. 11 attacks. He has a friend who works as a flight attendant for American Airlines and had another friend who died on one of the hijacked planes.

Pilots "see themselves as collecting a piece of the debt for 280 million people," said Thompson, 46, of Onoka, Minn.

The Stennis is moving farther from land than it does normally in training to give F-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat crews the experience of a longer flight before dropping their bombs, much like the pilots now hitting targets in Afghanistan.

Whidbey Island-based AE-6 Prowlers, an electronic warfare plane, are practicing missions where they jam enemy radar installations and disrupt electronic communications.

Many on the Stennis, where the average age is just over 19, are on their first deployment and still getting used to living in the cramped and bustling carrier. Experienced sailors said the atmosphere is changed.

There are metal detectors, installed for the first time, at ship entrances. Training is more intense, with more activities in fewer days. There are posters on the wall with Osama bin Laden’s face with messages such as "E-mail in the wrong hands could be dangerous."

There are also extra cases of Cipro in case of an anthrax attack, along with antidotes for nerve agents.

"Now, it’s time for us to go on the offensive, to turn the tide," said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Adams, a 36-year-old crewmember of a radar-jamming aircraft from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Melvin Jackson, 22, a fire controlman third class from Chicago, has just made out his first will.

"It’s a lot more intense," Jackson said. "We’re not just going out there in case something happens. Something has happened."

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