ABOARD THE USS GARY — The 250 sailors aboard the USS Gary had an eventful couple of months during escort duty, providing food to hungry sailors, repairing a stranded ship and rescuing fishermen from a sinking vessel.
When the war started, the frigate based in Japan provided air security over the USS Kitty Hawk. It was not the most exciting duty for the Gary sailors.
“We knew it was going to happen, we were dreading the day,” said Chief Petty Officer Dennis Meehan, 40, from Staten Island, N.Y. “There’s much more exciting things we could be doing, like escort [duty].”
Sailors got their wish recently when the Gary headed to the southern Persian Gulf to resume escort duty. Several Gary sailors said they were looking forward to other such encounters. They lessen the monotony as the frigate stretches into its third month at sea.
On Feb. 23, a few miles off the coast of Eritrea, the Gary helped a merchant ship. Its 22 crewmembers, stranded for 15 days because of catastrophic engine failure, were out of food and fresh water.
Gary sailors, including Petty Officer 2nd Class Martin Jones, a gunner’s mate from Kokomo, Ind., boarded the ship with food and water and parts for temporary repairs.
“One of the guys said, ‘Please don’t kill me, sir, I just want to eat.’”
“‘Dude, I just came to help,’” Jones, 27, said he responded. Then, he added, the rescued crew smoked all the sailors’ cigarettes.
A week later, the Gary aided a Danish merchant ship, Thor Falcon. Most of the bolts attaching its fuel-service pump to the main drive were shot.
The vessel was soon up and running again thanks to Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Bondoc, 38, a machinery repairman from Angeles City, Philippines. He worked 11 hours to make four new 6-by-1½-inch bolts with irregular grooves, which are difficult to duplicate.
Then, on March 13, Gary sailors launched an inflatable boat into rough seas to rescue eight Iraqi fishermen from a sinking vessel.
Toward the end of March through early April, the frigate was tasked with plane guard over the Kitty Hawk, searching and identifying everything around the carrier, and keeping a close eye on helicopters flying from the several nearby oil platforms.
The Gary sailors said they’ve learned a lot from the variety of missions.
Several said they enjoy duty on the small boy because it has an environment in which they are respected and trusted to do their jobs and learn from their mistakes.
“They’re not afraid of things or [worry] that they’ll get their head ripped off,” said the commanding officer, Cmdr. Tito P. Dua, 41.
Dua’s philosophy was illustrated on a night when the Gary got too close to the carrier. The Kitty Hawk had indicated it was going to wait for the Gary to move. As the Gary proceeded, though, the carrier started turning.
The Gary crossed the massive carrier’s bow, coming within 2,000 yards of it. Some expletives and commands were shouted out on the darkened bridge, as sailors hurried to move away from the carrier.
“That’s pretty close,” said a sailor, looking at the yellow glow of the carrier’s hangar bay. “They’re probably freaking out over there. ‘Gary, what’re you doing?’”
A few minutes later, Dua appeared on the bridge. He’d just gotten a call from someone on the Kitty Hawk who wasn’t too happy about the frigate’s close proximity to the carrier.
“When dealing with these big guys, they don’t want you that close,” Dua explained in a stern but steady voice. “Always turn away from him. Never turn into him.”
After making sure the lesson was understood, Dua left the bridge, calling out, “Guys, listen, keep me in the job, OK?”
Sailors appreciated the level-headed way the commander handled the situation. Had Dua stormed onto the bridge yelling about the incident, they said, it would have confused the situation.
“If it was another captain, there would’ve been blood on the walls,” one sailor said. “This captain trusts his ship. He’s comfortable with his people.”