100 Bags Of Mail

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In December 1990, the USS Virginia left Norfolk on what was supposed to be a short training exercise. We weren’t told where we were going until we were under way, but we’d been told to pack well, to check medical and dental readiness, and so on. Shortly after we were at sea, Captain Voorheis called for “all hands not actually on watch.” We gathered on the fantail and listened with the hair standing up on our backs as he told us we were going “where the rubber hits the road.” He invoked the great history of ships named Virginia and spoke about other events “upon which history turned.” Because of the logistics of moving a fleet, we were a little behind the main task force; the captain looked at his watch and told us that the air attack was in progress. We were joining the Gulf War.

The Virginia was a CGN, a nuclearpropelled guided-missile cruiser. The tactical advantage of such a ship is its ability to stay on station and operate without having to be refueled. The downside is that you spend long periods at sea, and you have fewer under way replenishments ( UNREPS ), when you take on fresh food and mail.

One night in the eastern Mediterranean we were on station at 0200 when an announcement came over all circuits: “This is the officer of the deck. I have a report of incoming Scud missiles. Set CBR Condition Two, sound general quarters.” When he said, “This is not a drill,” everyone gasped. CBR refers to the chemical, biological, and radiation measures we would follow when under attack by, say, missiles mounted with chemical warheads. It turned out that Iraq’s Scuds didn’t have the boosters that would enable them to reach us. They didn’t even make it past the beach.

Another time, our crew detected an unidentified fighter aircraft with a hostile profile trying to sneak in on us at high speed. Either our operations crew was the best in the business or this guy wasn’t very good, because we had him tracked forever. He was headed straight for us and closing fast. We went to general quarters, all crew members at their battle stations, missile launchers loaded.

Our rules of engagement required that we issue several warnings before firing our missiles. All these warnings were broadcast throughout the ship to keep the crew informed. “Unidentified aircraft _______ miles on my starboard bow, this is U.S. Navy Warship 38. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. Alter course to _______ or you will be fired upon.” The plane was getting close. After the last warning, the combat systems officer kept the mike keyed—perhaps unintentionally, perhaps to cover himself—and said to the bridge crew, “Captain, I recommend we fire.”

We didn’t fire. I don’t know what the captain saw or precisely what happened up in the Combat Information Center. It turned out the incoming pilot was an Allied fighter jock just cocky enough to think he could approach us without being detected and stupid enough to leave his radio off. I won’t identify his country, but any experienced naval aviator’s first guess as to who would pull a stunt like this would probably be correct. International incident averted. He flew over us so fast and low the jet-wash noise hurt my ears way down in repair locker five. He should have been toast.

We didn’t see the danger or action our ground troops experienced, but we’d been through a good deal emotionally. By February we’d missed several scheduled UNREPS . Our soda machines had been empty for eons. We were living on beans and franks, powdered eggs, and that smoky-tasting blue milk that comes in little boxes. These were small complaints, though, compared with what really mattered: We hadn’t gotten any mail. Our news of the outside world was limited to what portion of the war we could track ourselves and the radiograms posting the latest censored news.

By day 68 of our cruise (somehow that number sticks), morale was getting a little low. I was on watch on the bridge when the replenishment ship came into view. A wave of excitement swept over us; everyone wanted mail. To keep us all from getting our hopes up, the captain announced that there was a chance our mail was on a different ship along with some parts we needed.

We pulled alongside, matched course and speed, and commenced the UNREP. The quartermaster reported over the ship’s announcing system, “Five bags of mail for USS Virginia unrepped.” You could hear 500 hearts leap for joy. Five postal bags is a lot of mail.

“Five more bags of mail.” Excitement built with each announcement, and the announcements kept coming. We received something on the order of a hundred bags of mail that day.

I was 25, a junior officer new to the boat, and single. I didn’t have many people to write to me. But when all that mail came aboard, I figured some of it had to be for me. Mail call mattered a lot. And what it meant to me was small compared with what it meant to the enlisted men, most of them still in their teens.