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Tug boats prepare to guide the USS Kitty Hawk out of port Monday morning at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.
Tug boats prepare to guide the USS Kitty Hawk out of port Monday morning at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. (Rick Chernitzer / S&S)
Tug boats prepare to guide the USS Kitty Hawk out of port Monday morning at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.
Tug boats prepare to guide the USS Kitty Hawk out of port Monday morning at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. (Rick Chernitzer / S&S)
Kathleen Scott watches as her daughter Maggie waves goodbye to her daddy's ship, the USS Kitty Hawk.
Kathleen Scott watches as her daughter Maggie waves goodbye to her daddy's ship, the USS Kitty Hawk. (Rick Chernitzer / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — With a possible war on the horizon, the USS Kitty Hawk pulled out of port Monday morning for the brief test cruise that almost always precedes a major deployment.

Sailors and family members said the ship will be out for a few days to test some of its systems before returning for a brief period. Later this week, it’s expected to head to sea for a mission sailors have been told could last months.

The question on everyone’s minds: Where is the aircraft carrier headed? Will it be part of a possible action against Iraq? Or is it simply hanging around the Pacific to “show the flag” in the crisis with North Korea?

Officially, the Navy isn’t saying.

“We do not discuss ship’s movements or future operations,” said Lt. Marc Boyd, a 7th Fleet spokesman, echoing a familiar refrain.

But privately, some Navy officials say a trip to the Persian Gulf is just as likely as a mission in the Western Pacific.

“From everything that I’m told, we will head out for sea trials, probably pull back into port for one day, then head back out to sea,” said one senior Kitty Hawk officer. “At that point, we make that big left turn to the Gulf, or we start doing laps in this area.”

Speculation abounds.

One recent report by The Associated Press said the Pentagon was “almost certain” to approve a five-carrier force, including the Kitty Hawk, in an attack on Iraq.

In that scenario, the USS Carl Vinson would take over the Kitty Hawk’s duties in the Western Pacific.

Local Navy officials declined to comment on that report. However, they did say that once the ship gets further under way and its mission becomes known, more information would be made available.

But on the waterfront, before the Kitty Hawk pulled out, sailors willingly fired off their opinions.

“I hope that we don’t go to the Gulf,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Davis Smith. “I don’t care about the combat-zone pay or the ‘being part of the strike force.’ I want to stay here and see my family for a little bit. We just got back, and now, we could be back out for who-knows-how-long. I don’t like it.”

Countered Seaman Charles Bennett: “Which would you rather do? Sit on the sidelines here and watch like everyone else? I think that most of the crew would want to do what they signed up for, which is fight for and protect the country. If it means being away from home for a while, then I guess that is the way it has to be.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Miguel Cuellar said he’d happily take advantage of the tax-free status enjoyed by servicemembers assigned to duty in areas designated as dangerous. “I hope we do go there,” he said of the Gulf. “That money all tax-free for me. I’d take that any day.”

In either case, families again will be coping with the absence of crewmembers.

“I’m glad that we got to spend the holidays together but I don’t know what else we’re going to miss as a family,” said Carla Dolan, a Kitty Hawk spouse. “We were setting up a meeting at the elementary school with some of the kids’ teachers, and we said, ‘It needs to be this week, because it might be the last chance we have this school year.’”

Kathleen Scott, wife of Kitty Hawk crewmember Lt. Cmdr. David Scott, said she’s “no stranger to deployments” but is finding this one more difficult.

“Maybe it’s not knowing how long you’ll be able to stay in contact with them,” she said, expressing concern that e-mail service could be curtailed or unavailable at certain times during the deployment.

Still, Scott said, she knows the ship is ready for a showdown with Iraq if needed: “There’s a line in the sand that’s been drawn. If we need five carrier groups in the Persian Gulf, then that’s what we’ll have to have.”

“They’re ready,” said Fran Barbaree, wife of the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Robert Barbaree. “The whole crew is dedicated to completing whatever tasks they have to do.”

Experts in Asian affairs say the current North Korean situation complicates what the U.S. Navy may plan for the Kitty Hawk.

“This is all speculation, obviously, but taking the Kitty Hawk out of the Western Pacific would send a sure signal to Pyongyang that the U.S. isn’t interested in a first strike,” said Sheila Smith, a fellow and Asia regional security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

“It would make sense, going back to the ‘93-‘94 crisis, when the Navy brought in another battle group to show North Korea that they were serious about using force. The message this time is that they are not going to use force.”

But, Smith said, any messages being sent likely are being transmitted at a different level.

“The signals are political, not necessarily ship movements,” she said. “But the alliances we have, with Tokyo and Seoul, make it more difficult. A policy of pre-emption — and this is the difference from Iraq — is almost unthinkable in this case. The potential fallout, literally, would be Seoul.

“The best thing for Pyongyang is for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to have different intentions.”

Kitty Hawk family members have their own worries.

“We just want them to come home safe and sound,” said Tracy Johnson, whose husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Johnson, is stationed aboard the ship. “That’s the most important thing.”

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