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Sailors from the USS John S. McCain carry in spare parts brought on board by helicopter. The McCain returned to Yokosuka on May 6 after a long deployment to the Persian Gulf.
Sailors from the USS John S. McCain carry in spare parts brought on board by helicopter. The McCain returned to Yokosuka on May 6 after a long deployment to the Persian Gulf. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)
Sailors from the USS John S. McCain carry in spare parts brought on board by helicopter. The McCain returned to Yokosuka on May 6 after a long deployment to the Persian Gulf.
Sailors from the USS John S. McCain carry in spare parts brought on board by helicopter. The McCain returned to Yokosuka on May 6 after a long deployment to the Persian Gulf. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)
Ensign William Carr (foreground) takes a sextant reading as the USS John S. McCain approaches a Navy fueler off the coast of Japan. The McCain returned from the Persian Gulf on May 6.
Ensign William Carr (foreground) takes a sextant reading as the USS John S. McCain approaches a Navy fueler off the coast of Japan. The McCain returned from the Persian Gulf on May 6. (Joseph Giordono / S&S)

ABOARD THE USS JOHN S. MCCAIN — When the history of the second Gulf War is written, crewmembers of the destroyer USS John S. McCain could argue they deserve a whole chapter.

They fired dozens of cruise missiles at Iraqi targets. They sent small boat teams upriver toward the strategic port city of Umm Qasr. They provided air defense and gathered cryptological information for coalition warships.

They were, in the words of their commanding officer, Cmdr. Kevin Campbell, “the most sought-after free agent out there.”

After heading to sea on an emergency deployment Jan. 21, the McCain sailed to the Persian Gulf with the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens. Once it reached the Gulf, though, the McCain was called on for a series of diverse missions.

It would see the Kitty Hawk once before leaving the Gulf via the Straights of Hormuz. On Tuesday, the McCain pulled back into port to a rousing welcome by friends and family.

As the ship traveled up the coast of Japan earlier in the week, sailors recounted a deployment like none other.

“What we did, it’s something that I’ll never forget,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Kennedy, a team leader on one of two McCain small-boat squads to take the mission at the mouth of a southern Iraq river they called “the KAA,” the Kwahr Abd Allah River.

The small-boat teams were part of a multinational force clearing the area of mines, protecting humanitarian aid ships headed for Umm Qasr and searching for small Iraqi boats trying to smuggle people or weapons.

The teams faced many threats — suicide boat squads, floating mines, artillery from the shore. Under the command of an Australian warship, they lived on a Polish navy ship called the Cznernicki Orp.

Some 19 small-boat teams from American, British, Australian and Polish vessels took part.

“It was basically what you would call Navy Special Warfare,” Kennedy said.

At one point, one of the McCain teams nearly got lost during a freak storm in the Gulf. On another mission, members discovered Iraqi tugboats towing mine-laden barges.

“They had hundreds of them piled up on the barges and a bunch more they were assembling on the tugs,” said Ensign Andrea Kende, another team member. “We got to them before they had a chance to deploy.”

In all, the small-boat teams spent two weeks on the mission. During the same period, the McCain had another important task: firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets deep within Iraq.

The ship originally was designated as a secondary launch platform but circumstances had it firing almost every day for two weeks straight.

“On the first launch, we were the backup for a submarine that had 10 targets,” said Seaman Beau Forrester, who works in fire control. “For whatever reason, they couldn’t get to launch, so we ended up hitting all 10 of their targets.”

All the training and mock launches the crew completed over the past months were nothing compared with the real thing, sailors said.

“That first one, you were really hyped up for,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey Chester. “Every time we launched, it was still exciting, but the first one was something else.”

One launch, however, was even more memorable than the first. On the second night of launches, one of the Tomahawks malfunctioned shortly after being fired.

“Normally, the sound is like someone put a shotgun next to your ear and fired. Then you hear it fly off,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher Langteau, who escorted news crews onto the ship to film the launch.

“But on this one, you heard the pop, and you could still hear it buzzing around for a good 10 or 15 seconds. I remember thinking that something was wrong.”

The missile spiraled several times directly over the ship, dipped its nose downward and crashed into the sea just a hundred feet from where it was launched.

“I remember seeing the nose headed into the water, then a huge flash of light. Then I thought to myself, ‘Why did I agree to do this?’ ”

The missile narrowly missed the ship, providing everyone aboard with an impressive war story. Videotapes of the haywire launch, recorded both by the news crews and sailors with personal video cameras, are on almost constant rerun aboard the ship.

Now the McCain sailors are home, and they can share those stories with their families and friends. They are expecting a three-week stand-down. Then it’s back to work.

“I think we counted 256 days under way last year, and we’ve already racked up 100 for this year,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Peterson, whose wife won the First Kiss raffle and was waiting for him on the pier with their twin 4-year-old daughters.

“But I guess we go out so much because they can rely on us when they call. I know that I’m going to take my family to Disneyland. I’m going to try and treat my wife, try to give her back some of the sanity we had when we got married.”

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