ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — For most sailors aboard the USS Cowpens, the first taste of war was over too quickly.

The guided missile cruiser is one of three Yokosuka, Japan-based ships to see action so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom, along with the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain.

The Cowpens was the first ship to launch strikes from the Gulf. On Thursday, the cruiser fired a low-flying Tomahawk at a building believed to house Iraqi leaders near Baghdad.

“We’re honored and proud of our role,” said the Cowpens’ commanding officer, Capt. Charles B. Dixon, in a phone interview. “The crew trained very hard to be prepared to do this.”

Less than 30 minutes after the order to fire came from the 5th Fleet commander, 11 Tomahawks were blasting off the Cowpens, shaking sleeping crewmembers awake, Dixon said.

Sailors hurried to watch the launch, but all the 18-foot-long missiles were Iraqi-bound within minutes, he said.

Three other ships and two submarines in the Gulf and Red Sea fired 31 Tomahawks during the morning attack, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Brown, spokesman for the USS Kitty Hawk battle group.

The 2,650-pound missiles evade radar by flying at more than 500 mph very low over land and water for up to 1,000 miles. The Cowpens can carry as many as 122 Tomahawks.

On Thursday evening, at least three more U.S. ships joined the barrage, including the Yokosuka-based McCain.

The McCain, along with attack submarines USS Columbia and USS Providence, fired Tomahawks from the Gulf and Red Sea, Brown said.

The McCain fired about half of the 20 or so missiles. The Aegis-guided missile cruiser, normally part of the Kitty Hawk battle group, is operating with the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group in the Persian Gulf.

While the Cowpens and McCain were launching missiles, the Kitty Hawk was launching jets.

Pilots from Carrier Air Wing 5 flew 42 strike sorties against Iraq, dropping 37 bombs.

Capt. Thomas Parker, the carrier’s commanding officer, spoke to sailors Friday.

“We’ve been prowling around the Persian Gulf, looking for trouble,” he said. “Beginning yesterday, we found some.”

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