27 March 2006

My father's last combat cruise

Looking at the dates for today, I realized that this past weekend was the last cruise that my father did that lead to dropping of live ordnance on some bad guys. I didn't think about this completely until I started to read Chaotic Synaptic Activity's memories of being there as a screen commander. Most of what I am repeating here is coming from talking to my father and his memories. We were going to try and compare with his cruise book but since his office is being repainted and in a box some place, the dates and places are just a little hazy.
Now to start with my father had by this time served in the Navy for well over 18yrs himself with inside the A-6 community. Starting out as an E-1 with VA-128 back in 1967/68, did 3 Vietnam combat cruises with VA-165, and by the time that these events had transpired become an AQC and then was accepted into the Warrant Officer program. He was one of the first 4 officers to check into the squadron he was serving with as initially the assistant maintenance officer he was also given a temporary promotion from W-3 to LTJG. He was assigned to VA-55 and was there in the ready room when the orders came through to knock the Libyans teeth back.

Let us take a quick step in the time machine and roll back about 20yrs to 1986 and over to the wonderful Mediterranean Sea. So it has come to past that the Libyan leader Qaddafi is still trying to challenge the US and most of the rest of the world. As part of the 6th Fleet representation on hand most of the winter of 85 through to the spring of 1986 was the USS America (CV-66) with CVW-1 and the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) with the brand new air wing CVW-13. It was also the first deployment in the Atlantic and the Med of the F-18A. Anyhow, just after Christmas was the Rome airport terrorist attack, which had followed earlier in 1985 with the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the seizure of the SS Achille Lauro. On top of that Libya had been claiming for about 2yrs the area from the Tunis Peninsula over to where Benghazi as his own private waters and there was a "Line of Death" where anyone that crossed this line would be subject to attack, unless they pay tribute. Now anyone who has happened across my blog should know that this isn't the first time that a tribute claim has come from Tripoli. Okay so Reagan, order the JCS to do something about this. So the Department of State filled a complaint about the "Line of Death" thing with the UN, along with how the US was only going to recognize the 12nm limit as mandated by the UN Law of the Sea thing. The DoD came out and stated that it was going to conduct what is called a Freedom of Navigation (or FON) exercise. Now a FON is done anytime the US feels that a nation is over extending its rights to claim portions of international waters as it own. The US does them almost yearly and most of them don't every get noticed unless of course the nation that the US is protesting by this event tries to come out and play. That is what happened with the third FON that was called Operation Attain Document by his air wing commander. So after leaving port in Sicily they started to operate in conjunction with the USS America where 6th Fleet was flying his flag at the time and they were rejoined by the USS Sara toga who was on her way home from her deployment and was actually about to out chop when this went down and the whole force was renamed Task Force 60. So you have largest US carrier group arranged in anyone place since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. 3 Carrier Battle Groups and their attached air wings along with 2 of the Amphibious Readiness Groups were sticking close to the area ready to run in if needed. Well over 200 aircraft just on the carriers alone. 4 F-14 squadrons at 20 aircraft per squadron, 3 A-6 squadrons with 15 aircraft, 4 A-7E squadrons with about 20 aircraft, and the 4 F-18A squadrons on the Coral Sea which came in around 35-40 aircraft. That is a hell of a punch just air wing size and on top of that according to some other things that he read recently . There was P-3's out of Sig and VQ-2 out of Rota flying EP-3A's that were preforming the surface search and ELINT missions. So that you have an idea of what is all set up against the bad guys what my father remembers is this.

Just prior to the start of this exercise the VQ-2 det that the Coral Sea had had been trolling pretty hard along the coast listening in with their EA-3B birds and were being chased at various times by the Libya MiG's and French built Mirages. Most of the time they were able to out run the bad guys and get with in range of F-14's off the USS America. So a smaller surface action group steams deep into the Gulf of Sirte all the while the CVBG's were conducting flight ops in and around the disputed region. On top of that 3 birds from VAQ-135 flew on almost immediately after the Carrier got under way from Palermo while the crew came on the last day of the port visit. All of these guys where from Whidbey, which was the home of the Prowler community and even more interesting was the fact that a lot of these guys were seasoned aircrew who were all from different commands with in the community. My fathers squadron accepted them with open arms. Sharing working space, living space, and ready room. CVW-13 didn't have a EA-6B outfit assigned to it initially. He remembers looking in the the cockpit of that bird during take off and looking at 4 different colored helmets, but they were all pros and all of them had see some sort of combat. They had their birds configured 3 different ways.
2 were for the Surface CAP mission (SUCAP) that was with 2 AGM-84D Harpoons and 8 Mk-20 Rockeyes and the other was with 12 Rockeyes only. The other config they had was 12 Mk83 bombs with the Snake-eye retardant fins attached for ground operations. The Rockeye is a cluster bomb that has been around since Vietnam and was pretty effective against the missile boats that the Libyans had. On top of that the aircrew was getting training in again on how to load, acquire, and launch the AGM-78 Standard ARM and AGM-45 Shrike missiles since if they needed to go after suspected radar sites near the coast these would of been the missiles they would use. At this time the AGM-88 HARM hadn't been cleared for use with their A-6E squadron yet and the only guys that could carry it was the A-7E's on the bigger carriers. The F-18 guys were also carrying Shrike and were also flying the air defense mission and final also configed for the SUCAP mission but they couldn't carry as much vs the A-6. So for about 2 days they had been flying with live ordnance on board and basically trolling for the "Dirty Harry" moment as he remember his roommate stated one night. Most of the aircraft had been painted a number of times by various radar systems that the Libyans had and the only one that air wing was really sweating was the SA-5 missile system, it along with some of the other air defense systems that they Libyans had were sold to them by the Soviets. Since it had a very long range some where around 255nm. It wasn't that hard of a missile to avoid but you had to see it coming. After a pair of F-14's flying CAP for the Surface Group that went south were painted and shot at on the 24th, a pair of A-7's from the USS America's went and put a pair of HARM's done the Libyan's throat. It was the first combat use of the HARM, a great missile that had longer range and better electronics then either the STARM or Shrike, it worked like a champ too. Even when the Libyans shutdown the radar system the missile was still smart enough to remember where the heck it was and shut it down. The Libyans and their Soviet Advisors tried 2 more times to bring out more radars and each time the HARM preformed like a champ.
2 days later the Libyan's tried to sortied their Navy which was composed of various Soviet built frigates like the Koni class FF's , Their Assad class which are almost carbon copies of Italian missile patrol boats, and some French built La Combattante missile boats. These ships really couldn't be considered a threat, but like anything else a lucky shot can ruin your day. So it was on the morning of the 3 or 4 day of operations the word came across the 1MC to launch the Alert 5 SUCAP (which had a pair of Harpoons and some Rockeyes on her). My father was up on the flight deck checking up on the various squadron troubleshooters, the guys who do the final check of the bird on the cats before it launches, and overall checking up on the maintainers looking out on them. He remembers 95% of them were hard charging guys who cared about their jobs and showed pride in doing what they were doing. So the Alert 5 crew closed the canopy, spun up the engines and were taxied out to the cats to be launched. Just as that was going down the call for a Yo-Yo tanker was put out across the 1MC at the same time. A Yo-Yo tanker is a tanker that is going up for the launch cycle and then coming right back down and not staying out as per a normal tanker package, hence the term Yo-Yo. VA-55 filled the tanker role (as well as the medium attack) on the Coral Sea and had a couple birds dedicated to carrying a buddy store on the center line with 4 drops on the wings. So that crew came wadding up out of the bowels of the ship and did the abbreviated pre-flight, since they had already done one when they assumed the alert watch. Got spun up and taxied out to their cat.
Now you need to understand that nearly everyone on the flight deck knows what is going on and where, it may look like complete and total chaos, but there is a rhyme and rhythm as to what is going on and it is amazing how fast an aircraft can go from sitting there all by itself with just some maintainers resting on it during the launch/recovery cycle to being preflighted and ready to go airborne.
So it was that in under 5 minutes both birds were taxied up and the rest of the Alert 5 guys were looking with envy at these guys going wondering when their chance to go in was going to come, sort of like sitting on the bench at a football game and the coach picks the other guy or squad to go in.
My dad hustle off the deck and went down to the ready room to listen in to what was going on through their radio repeater which was tuned to squadron tactical. It had seemed that one of the patrol boats that the Libyans had got a little too close for comfort, for CTF60, to a pair of destroyers watching the harbor of Tripoli and to see if the Libyans would sortie their one and only submarine so he ordered it removed. The airborne SUCAP from VA-85 got tasked first and put a Harpoon into the target. Which was later ID'd as a Nanuchka II class missile corvette. About that same time, 3 more Libyan missile boats came out to play a pair of La Combattents, which had the Exocet missile as part of their main battery, and an Assad which had the Italian built Otomat missile. The other two A-6 outfits (VA-34 and VA-55)had a chance to zap the other two guys and the only one that they both could find was the La Combattent which VA-34 tried to drop on and the aircrew had a release problem, so VA-55 bird came in and dropped a pair of Rockeyes on it. Which opened up over the sucker and looking at it later in debrief in the ready room via a TRAM FLIR video the whole screen turned a bright white and then the ship was shown on fire from one end to the other. Then later that night VA-34 and VA-55 birds were still hunting the Assad class missile boat and chased them around, fired a couple more Harpoons on them around midnight and though they have radar video of the missile hitting the target, they couldn't find it later on to confirm the kill. It was believed later on by the intel guys that both 34 and 55 fired missiles and both of them hit the boat and well over 4000lb of high explosives detonating on a fiberglass and aluminum hull just completely destroyed it.
It was really something, my dad explained, for the younger guys to see "their" bird go out with a full load and then come home with just the copper arming wires hanging from the racks. He said later there were friendly fights in the AO (the guys that load and build the bombs for the USN) and AQ (an older rating now gone that took care of the fire control systems) shops over who loaded and who fixed the radar systems on those birds so that could as one AOC said at the next port visit in Naples "Put warheads on foreheads". The rest of the FON ended without anymore shooting and near the end the talk was of going back to either Naples or Palermo for a port visit. When they arrived in Italy, the Italians thought the Americans were hero's for standing up to the Libyans and doing something instead of sitting on their hands. Of course he also remembers the Italian Communists were raising Cain and using the typical communist propaganda manual during that time. But it was the common man on the street that went up and thanked those guys that seem to give them even more pride in what they had done in showing Qaddafi was a paper tiger. That was just the start though of combat against Libya, because some of what was coming up came from what the VQ-2 guys were hearing from thier listening.
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