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Feature Story June 12, 2003
 
Gilligan's Gulf
 
Page 2 of 5
 
When a ship was finally stopped and found to hold unregistered oil, a nearby country, usually Qatar or The UAE, would take possession of the ship, selling it and the oil, keeping the baksheesh. The crew would be flown back to Iraqi, which is about the worst punishment I could imagine, where they would start it all up again. The owners cut their risk by using the most decrepit vessels available. Some were in such bad shape that water would swoosh across the lowest deck. So: rust bucket ship, plus welded doors and windows, equals deathtrap. A lot of those ships went down with their entire crews.

And while the US Navy was steaming around the Gulf trying to stop the oil smugglers, guess who was buying all that Iraqi oil? According to an article by Rick Jurgens of the Contra Costa Times, ChevronTexaco Corp. grabbed at least 41 million barrels. American companies bought a third of Iraq's oil, processed it and then sold it to the Navy ships trying to stop the smugglers. The truth is, everyone was getting paid one way or another and nobody wanted it to stop or fix it. It was good for everyone involved. Except the dead crewmen. It was pretty bad for them.

I should have known that my time on board the Thach was going to be crappy when I stepped in the helicopter. It was one of the famous Desert Ducks, helicopters from the 60's that should have been decomm'ed long ago. If you've seen a movie about the first Astronauts, this is the type of helicopter that they usually show retrieving the crew and capsule. They're that old. In The Gulf they are used to carry mail and replacement crew to the boats.

While we were putting on our float coats and helmets, I noticed the crewman's seat across from me was covered in some sort of oil. As I looked up I saw a steady drip of hydraulic fluid dripping its Tang-ish color all over the seat. It wasn't too bad as long as the blades weren't turning, but as soon as the engines revved up for takeoff, this orange goo started streaming out. I motioned to one of the crew, and he just nodded. If he's not worried I shouldn't be, unless he's an idiot.

When I got to the ship, I started asking around, doing the usual "getting to know the crew" bullshit. In addition to the "big picture" of what the Navy was doing in the Maritime Intervention Operation, I was supposed to get stories about the crew for Hometown News, a PR program where the Navy does a story about a crewman and sends it to his hometown. The Navy gets free publicity, the paper gets a white space filled for free and "Billy the Sailor" gets his name in the local paper. I had done enough of this kind of corny crap for Navy TV so I was trying to find out if anyone genuinely interesting was onboard.

Everyone I asked told me to talk to the postal clerk. He was the one who knew everything on the ship. Sure enough he was the guy. I met him as he was separating the bag of mail that arrived on the same helo as I did. He was a story himself, one of the typical Navy stories with a little extra. His name was Edgar. He was a Mexican from LA, wife and a baby girl back home. He liked to draw his own comic books. In addition to being the only mailman on the ship, Edgar was also part of the crash crew during helo landings. He holds the fire extinguisher. Every time a helicopter lands he stands out there and in case something goes wrong he sprays down the helo while another guy jumps in and tries to get people out. He gets a couple hundred bucks extra for this. He showed me around the ship and apologized for not being energetic, as he hadn't slept much lately. In addition to the postal job, and the fire extinguisher job, he also had to stand two 4-hour watches a day. This was all the benefit of a new idea in crew manning. 12 on 12 off. They were trying it on aircraft carriers, but this was one was the first time they were using it on a frigate which has only about 250 people. Some people loved it, others hated it. Edgar, in his humble way, said he was "all right with it." But he should have been one of the haters. Some dickhead was fiddling around with the workloads and he was getting the shaft. Some people were only working 12 a day. He was closer to 20. Of course, nobody in the decision making process realized that no matter how you divide X amount of work you still only have Y number of people to do the job. Edgar showed me around and introduced me to some possibles, then when back to his sorting.


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