ABOARD USS KITTY HAWK — Sailors gathered in the helicopter hangar on the USS Cowpens so they wouldn’t miss the show.

The day before, most of the Yokosuka, Japan-based sailors slept through the unexpected firing of the Tomahawk cruise missiles bound for Iraq.

Few people get to see a Tomahawk launch, and they weren’t about to miss it again.

“There was a stunned silence,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Crawford. “There was all this smoke and fire, and then it was just red.”

Crawford and another Cowpens sailor described the events while waiting for a flight on the USS Kitty Hawk on Sunday.

“The guy in front of me jumped so much. It was the loudest bang,” said Crawford, 22, an information technician. “I shoot guns at home. This was 1,000 times louder than that.”

Afterward, some of the guided-missile cruiser’s 400 sailors watched the news to see the missiles hit and started betting when the Cowpens would launch more.

At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, the Cowpens was the first ship in the Gulf to launch missiles.

Lt. j.g. Tracy Meyer was on watch when the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Charles B. Dixon, got the call to launch.

Meyer, a communications officer, was one of seven members of the strike team. She was in the Command Information Center for the launching and watched the firing on a monitor that showed images from a camera that faces the helicopter pad near one of the launching systems.

“It was intense,” she said.

Sailors kept pieces of the shrapnel as souvenirs, she said.

The mood on the ship “is much more at ease now,” Meyer said. “It was a case of waiting, waiting, waiting, and then finally doing your job.”

Dixon gave sailors a heads up about before the next launching. And it was a big one.

About 30 ships and submarines in the Gulf, Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea have launched 500 Tomahawk missiles in a massive attack on and around Baghdad since Thursday. One of those ships was the USS John S. McCain, also from Yokosuka.

While the destroyer’s sailors weren’t reachable via telephone, some responded to e-mails Saturday evening.

“The crew is doing a great job answering the call,” said Cmdr. Kevin Campbell, 44, commanding officer.

One of the McCain’s missiles malfunctioned, tumbling end over end into the sea 60 feet from the ship. There were no injuries.

“The team was able to back that failure up with another missile and were able to support that strike mission,” Campbell said. “We are ready to answer the call for further strike missions.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class John Powell, 28, is a member of the McCain’s Tomahawk team.

“Before the first strike, there were definitely butterflies,” he said. “After that, it was just a matter of making sure we got everything off on time and not having any mistakes.”

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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