By Jared Samuelson
Celebes Sea, approximately 850 nautical miles from Fiery Cross Reef – 0030 Local
“Romeo’s closed up,” came the call from the port bridge wing. Raising the red and yellow romeo flag to the top of the stays was the signal USS Omaha, an Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship, was beginning its approach to the Japanese oiler Mashu.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Hassan Caterall’s hands betrayed a slight tremor as he flicked his eyes in the direction of his Executive Officer, the ship’s second-in-command. The XO, Commander Morgan Dennis, a former enlisted sailor with more than 20 years in the Navy, hovered over the console between Hassan and the ship’s Navigator, Lt. j.g. Mike Dunleavy. Dennis’s eyes moved continuously, alternately looking out the windows ahead, down at the radar and navigation displays in front of his junior officers and towards the bridge wing where the ship’s captain stood, watching and measuring the distance to the oiler.
“Let’s go, Caterall,” Dennis said. “Just remember, if there’s a problem, forget that schoolhouse bullshit. Just put the throttle down and walk hard away.”
Hassan had completed the training required to drive the LCS just three weeks prior. He thought ruefully about how he and his classmates had spent most of their free time in class bitching about how unrealistic and unnecessarily rigorous the training was. Now he found himself about to make a silent, nighttime approach in wartime conditions to a foreign oiler and silently thanked his instructors. He shifted in his seat. His flame-retardant flash hood pulled at his neck. He was wearing the hood pulled down so as not to restrict his vision; his gloves sat in his lap to allow for maximum dexterity while controlling Omaha’s sensitive waterjet engines.
With his left hand, he eased the combinator, which controlled Omaha’s waterjets, forward, increasing power. The combinator clicked and locked in his hand. He stifled his momentary panic and relaxed his hand while counting to four, just as he’d been taught. At four, he eased the combinator forward again, allowing himself to exhale as he felt the ship surge forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shark-like silhouette of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer O’Kane, backlit by the moon as she searched for enemy submarines.
The South Pacific War, as the media called it, had come without notice. The Chinese executed simultaneous attacks coinciding with two American freedom of navigation operations or FONOPs. In the first, the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, sailing through the Taiwan Strait, found itself saturated with ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, resulting in the worst U.S. Navy losses since the battle of Savo Island. Only the destroyer John McCain had limped away, sustaining multiple missile hits to her superstructure and scores of dead.
The second FONOP, at Mischief Reef in the Spratly islands, ended similarly when Chinese fighters operating from the new airfield at Fiery Cross Reef flew in below the horizon and surprised the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Chafee. Both ships were hit multiple times. Nearby Chinese naval militia in unmarked fishing vessels immediately swarmed, overwhelming the crews with the result that the two American hulks were taken as prizes and moored to a pier at Mischief Reef. An exultant Chinese government immediately released images of the listing ships pierside, Chinese flags flying from their deformed masts. An unknown number of Americans remained on the island as prisoners, complicating plans for a retaliatory strike.
The attacks were just a distraction for the long-anticipated move against Taiwan. With the 7th Fleet Carrier Strike Group at the bottom of the Straits of Taiwan, a large Chinese amphibious force sortied from the fleet base at Ningbo and landed all along Taiwan’s west coast. Despite fierce opposition, Chinese special forces who had infiltrated the populace, a seemingly endless supply of ballistic missiles and China’s unfettered ability to pour in more troops meant the Taiwanese struggle, while valiant, was ultimately doomed.
Chinese missile salvos against Guam and the remaining 7th Fleet ships in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan rendered the U.S. Navy impotent west of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, who had seen much of their own fleet destroyed, were supporting their American allies with two surviving Kongo-class destroyers, the diesel submarines that were underway at the time of the attack, and a trio of ships that had been visiting the American east coast on a training cruise. The Australians had immediately pledged support, but their units were patrolling far to the south. America’s European allies were still mulling over their positions.
American fortunes had improved slightly since the opening onslaught. A decision to eliminate Chinese satellites had resulted in a tit-for-tat exchange that destroyed both countries’ known GPS constellations and reconnaissance satellite coverage. The result for the U.S. Navy was a dramatically reduced Chinese ability to surveil the Americans. The U.S. Air Force had thrown up an improvised constellation of miniature satellites to partially restore American reconnaissance and geolocation services. The satellites, due to their size and number, were proving much harder for the Chinese to locate and destroy.
A Chinese sally from beneath their protective ballistic missile umbrella had been smashed when a pair of American submarines had devastated one of two Chinese carrier strike groups and an accompanying amphibious force. American submarines had performed exceedingly well, doing enough damage to cause Chinese commanders to pull Chinese submarines back into coastal waters. On the heels of those successes, the U.S. Navy would attempt its first tentative step forward to push back the Chinese bubble using its most unlikely platform, the Littoral Combat Ship.
Omaha and her Surface Division 11 sisters, Jackson, Montgomery ,and Gabrielle Giffords, had originally been conceived as “Surface Warfare” variants of the Littoral Combat Ship. Each nominally carried a crew of 74, 16 short-range Hellfire missiles and eight Kongsberg long-range Naval Strike Missiles. She and her sisters were now loaded, however, for far more than surface warfare.
SurfDiv 11 had rendezvoused with the Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group near Palau a day earlier. Omaha and Jackson had each taken aboard two companies of marine infantry and three Viper helicopters. Gabrielle Giffords embarked a team of maintainers for the Vipers, Marine logisticians, and pallets of small arms ammunition and food. Montgomery received a platoon of marines, a number of large, nondescript boxes, and a team of contractors. Aboard Omaha and Jackson, the Vipers were fully armed, fueled, and strapped to the flight deck. The infantrymen were packed into what, in peacetime, had been cavernous, and often empty, mission bays. Hassan had walked past the bay on his way to the bridge before watch, noting every square foot of space now seemed to be occupied by someone in digital green camouflage.
Before getting underway, each LCS received a hasty alteration to the massive mission bay door on the ship’s starboard side. Rather than a hydraulically operated mechanism to open the door that allowed cargo to be loaded and unloaded directly from the mission bay to the pier, each door was now rigged with a relatively simple pin and wire mechanism to turn it into a ramp that could be raised and lowered. The alteration allowed a single crewman to rapidly drop the ramp by hammering out a pair of retaining pins. The ramp would have to be reseated by a team of 10 sailors pulling it manually back into place.
It wasn’t until the ships were underway, leaving San Diego behind at a brisk 40 knots, that Omaha’s Commanding Officer, Captain Mark Dewitt, assembled the crew to explain the mission. Jovial and relaxed in peacetime, the weeks of conflict had taken a toll on Dewitt. Dewitt paused briefly while providing an overview of the early American defeats, gathering himself as he recounted events that had resulted in the deaths of numerous friends. Hassan thought the Captain’s face betrayed his weariness. He wondered if he was the only one who noticed.
Omaha and SurfDiv 11 were to be part of a massed, high speed assault on the Chinese base complex in the South China Sea. After a series of cross-Pacific, 40-knot sprints from oiler-to-oiler (the LCS was notoriously thirsty for fuel and had minimal tank capacity), the ships would embark marines near Palau, conduct a final refueling in the Celebes Sea, and then dash the remaining 800 miles to the Chinese base at Fiery Cross Reef.
Their arrival would be preceded by a barrage of Tomahawk missiles launched from American ships and submarines and Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles fired from Air Force B52s. The Vipers would be launched in advance of their arrival at Fiery Cross to suppress enemy defenses further. SurfDiv 11 was to charge the piers, blasting shore targets with the ship’s 57 mm gun and Hellfire missiles while using the incredibly maneuverable waterjet engines to get pierside long enough to drop their ramps and allow the Marines to storm the pier. The marines would be outnumbered, but the general in command was counting on the combined firepower to shock the Chinese and allow his marines to overwhelm the defenses long enough to fly in reinforcements from a base in Palawan.
A pair of Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transports or EPFs, militarized high-speed ferries, would deliver additional air defense units, coastal defense cruise missiles, surveillance radar, and other support elements to establish an Expeditionary Advanced Base. Finally, a pair of U.S. Air Force Rapid Raptor packages would be airborne, waiting to swoop into the freshly seized airfield to begin offensive operations against neighboring Chinese installations.
At the same time, another division of LCSs with marines and special forces embarked would assault or raid the Chinese positions at Cuarteron Reef. A set of unmanned surface vessels and drones were already underway, flooding the area immediately surrounding the South China Sea with false signals to confuse Chinese targeting efforts.
The mission’s most daring element, however, was its conspicuous lack of major fleet units. Because of the required transit speeds and the detectability of their high-powered Spy radars, American commanders had elected to leave their most potent ships, the Arleigh Burke destroyers and Ticonderoga cruisers, behind. Those units would remain west of the Philippines or in the Celebes Sea to give the Chinese the impression the American fleet was hesitant to push back into the South China Sea. This left the undergunned LCSs exposed to Chinese missiles with only electronic countermeasures and short-range Rolling Airframe Missiles for self-defense.
Celebes Sea approximately 300 miles south southeast of Davao, The Phillipines – 0032 Local
Hassan felt Mashu’s wake nudge Omaha’s bow to starboard as he approached the oiler’s stern. The seas were glassy. The beautiful scene, a full moon reflecting from the ocean’s surface, made for ideal weather for submarines hunting surface ships, although the Chinese had shown no inclination to push their subs out this far. Hassan pushed the thought from his mind and angled his waterjets toward the oiler, forcing Omaha onto a course paralleling the larger ship while Captain Dewitt shouted ranges from the bridge wing. Seconds later, the XO said curtly, “Cut it,” and Hassan reduced power as Omaha settled into position alongside. A line was passed between them to allow the ships to easily measure distance. Normally strung with disposable chemlights, the ships were instead supposed to remain darkened, so distances were relayed via sound-powered telephone. The heavy metal spanwire was hauled over and connected, allowing Mashu’s refueling rig to slide into a bell-shaped receptacle on Omaha’s port side.
Hassan could hear the exchange between the Engineering Officer of the Watch, seated behind him, and the captain culminating with the order to “commence pumping.” It required all his concentration to hold Omaha alongside the Japanese ship. He spent the next 20 minutes silently praying the combinators wouldn’t lock while the ships were this close together. By the time the order “cease pumping” was relayed, he was drenched in sweat and his left hand was cramping on the combinator handle.
As the lines from Mashu dropped clear, he pushed the combinator handle forward. The division “flagship,” Omaha had refueled last and now, free of the oiler, she surged forward, gradually increasing speed to 40 knots as her three sisters and the two EPFs fell in astern, heading northwest in a loose column toward the gap between Tapaan and Maningkulat Islands.
Hassan’s relief, Lt. j.g. Marilyn Starnes, the ship’s Auxiliaries Officer, came up to the bridge a few minutes later and began preparing for watch turnover. Starnes gathered information from Dunleavy, including the ship’s course, speed, and maneuvering intentions for the next few hours while Hassan remained “eyes up,” scanning the horizon for surface contacts. Once ready, Marilyn requested the Captain’s permission to relieve and then allowed Hassan to stand and step away from his chair. He was too tired to apologize for how sweaty he’d left the seat.
Hassan headed below to the messdecks, joining a line of sweaty sailors who had just left their replenishment stations. The marines, mercifully, were eating MREs in the mission bay, so as not to overwhelm the small crew manning Omaha’s galley. Mike Dunleavy joined him in line a few minutes later and the XO showed up shortly, as well. The two junior officers occupied a table in the corner of the messdecks and tried to hide their disappointment when the XO sat down heavily at the next table over.
The XO looked pointedly at them, “You two need to rack out after this. I don’t care what other obligations you think you have. We go to GQ in 16 hours and we’ll be there until we’re pierside or at the bottom.”
The two juniors looked at each other, half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches hanging from their hands. Finally, Hassan turned back to the XO. “Are we going to make it, sir?” Commander Dennis regarded his young officer, “I think we’ll get in … but the mission isn’t always to come home.”
South China Sea, 200 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 1800 Local
Hassan had been lying awake in his rack for an hour when the alarm sounded to bring Omaha to General Quarters or ‘GQ’, her highest condition of readiness. He’d slept in his flash hood and had his gloves tucked into his pocket. Just before he reached his battle station on the ship’s bridge, he found a Chief passing out new additions to his wardrobe, lightweight body armor, a small life preserver that clipped around his waist, and a Kevlar helmet. He took a minute to tighten the body armor and briefly considered the inflatable yellow life preserver, light and packed small enough in its navy blue pouch that it fit in his hand and wondered if the buoyancy would be enough to overcome the weight of the body armor if he went into the water.
He found Mike Dunleavy already in the left-hand seat and started gathering information. The ship’s electronic warfare specialists were reporting jamming by both sides. The Chinese had multiple surface and airborne radars flooding the South China Sea searching for Americans, but thus far the combination of jamming support and the NEMESIS system meant SurfDiv 11 was undetected. Montgomery would soon add another element for the Chinese to consider: the nondescript boxes she’d onloaded earlier had transformed into a series of launchers spread over the flight deck. Loaded into the launchers were the drones comprising the LOCUST system. The Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology would release a swarm of autonomous drones to confuse Chinese radars at the four air defense batteries on Fiery Cross Island’s periphery, buying the LCS, the Vipers, and anyone else approaching the islands additional time to pull within weapons release range.
Hassan looked down at the closed circuit camera showing the flight deck, now a hive of activity as marines and sailors worked together to prep the Vipers for launch. The nervous energy permeating the ship didn’t come as a surprise. Even Omaha’s seasoned Chief Petty Officers, most of whom had at least 18 years’ experience, were being forced to confront their first combat experience.
South China Sea, 80 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2100 Local
The lookout’s voice crackled over the radio, “Bridge, Starboard lookout. I have a … a glow on the horizon … 050 relative.”
Hassan was “eyes up” while Mike Dunleavy studied the navigation display and he swiveled his head to the right. The XO stood near the captain’s chair. He and the captain paused to look to the horizon. The XO, thumbs hooked into his body armor, said “Tomahawks going in…” just loud enough for the rest of the bridge to hear. The glow continued moving from right to left, racing towards Fiery Cross Reef.
The Captain looked down at his watch. “Right on time…”
Omaha was at flight quarters, preparing to launch her three Vipers. The first was spotted in the center of the deck aft. Her takeoff would be aided by more than 50 knots of relative wind sweeping across the deck as the ship maintained 40 knots. After running through the checklist and getting the Captain’s permission, Mike Dunleavy announced ‘green deck’ into his mic and the two of them heard the noise of Stinger 21’s rotor blades as she swept past. The flight deck crew was already moving to spot the second helo for launch. Stinger 22 and Stinger 23 were both in the air in less than 5 minutes. The three-plane formation did a quick pass over the flagship, joined the helicopters just launched from Jackson and formed a loose line abreast, skimming the wavetops to avoid the Chinese radar that would hopefully be knocked offline by the Tomahawks.
Hassan had to keep his eyes forward to avoid being distracted by the barrage of signal lights being directed toward Omaha. The need to conduct this attack in silence had almost overwhelmed the Navy, which had disestablished its Signalman rating in 2004. The ability to communicate without electronic means was now in high demand, so the Americans had embarked Australian, Japanese, and even British yeomen who had flown around the world to join the fight as silent communicators. American quartermasters, theoretically proficient in Morse code and signaling protocol, were receiving a crash course from masters as the ship COs finalized details of the assault that normally would have been communicated via naval message or e-mail.
The narrow passage on Fiery Cross Reef’s northeast corner was the only means of accessing the inner harbor. With a 104-feet-wide beam, only 30 feet less than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the Independence-class LCSs would be forced to pass through the channel one at a time, followed by the EPFs. With the “landing force” embarked, Omaha and Jackson would be first through and make directly for the piers normally occupied by Chinese auxiliaries and dredgers. Gabrielle Giffords would follow. Her marine aircraft maintainers would fight as infantrymen until landing space could be secured for the Vipers. Montgomery would pass through last and remain in the basin providing supporting fire from marines manning heavy weapons on her flight deck and the ship’s 57 mm gun. All ships were instructed to enter the channel at maximum speed so their momentum would carry them forward and clear, even if damaged. The islands housed an assessed pre-war garrison of 1,000-strong, but long-range radars had detected regular flights from the Chinese mainland. Intelligence estimated most of those flights were fighters and maritime patrol aircraft, but no one knew what the estimate was based on given that American satellite coverage had been largely eliminated in the war’s early days.
South China Sea, 50 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2145 Local
The tension of several hours at General Quarters had steadily worn the crew down until the first trickles of information began coming in. While still 60 miles out, there were flashes visible, reflecting from the few high-level clouds. The bridge fell silent as each sailor realized these would be the Tomahawks and Air Force CALCMs impacting or being intercepted. Moments later, a light began blinking urgently from the EPF trailing the formation. The second EPF, USNS Choctaw County, had been fitted with a makeshift signals intelligence and electronic warfare suite mounted on her flight deck in a container.
The British yeoman read the message to the pilothouse seconds later. “Multiple surface-to-air missile launches detected. Radar emissions have stopped.”
Had the Chinese radars been eliminated or were they merely shut off to complicate targeting?
In another twenty minutes, more flashes. “Vipers engaging. At least one shot down. Enemy air search radar operating. Signal isn’t as strong as it was…”
South China Sea, 20 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2230 Local
The battle was visible now. While it was still unclear exactly what damage the Tomahawks and CALCMs had done, pillars of smoke rose into the air and fires burned from one end of the island to the other. The American missiles were supposed to target the four Chinese air defense complexes, the headquarters building and the concrete revetments that served as shelters for maritime patrol and fighter aircraft. Small, fast shadows periodically blocked the flames, letting the ships’ crews know at least some of the Vipers were still in the fight.
The ship’s Tactical Action Officer called up on the internal communications net, “Captain, TAO. We’re listening in on the Vipers’ radio frequency now. The channel is clear. Say again, the channel is clear.”
The TAO paused and background noise from Combat spilled over the speaker before an excited voice broke in: “VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE! VAMPIRE bearing 347, range 16 nautical miles!”
The bridge crew automatically peered into the smoke and flames at bearing 347, trying to spot the anti-ship cruise missile the Sea Giraffe radar had detected. “Got it,” said the XO, extending his arm. Just below the horizon, a flame burned, no more than a pinprick of light at this range. The British yeoman was already out on the bridge wing, frantically signaling the other ships in company.
“Looks like it’s headed for Montgomery, sir,” the TAO said, trying to affect a calmer tone. The ships had fanned out earlier and were proceeding in an approximate line abreast. Montgomery was four miles from Omaha’s starboard beam. As the pinprick on the horizon moved towards Montgomery, the entire bridge watched, rapt. Even Hassan, momentarily forgetting he was supposed to be “eyes up” watched the engagement unfold. Montgomery was heeled over in a hard turn to starboard, trying to unmask her missile launchers. When the missile was four miles out, flashes erupted from Montgomery, a pair of Rolling Airframe Missiles racing towards the inbound. One of the missiles wobbled almost immediately upon leaving the launcher, spiraled and then dove into the ocean just a few hundred yards forward of the ship. The remaining RAM closed one rapidly until it detonated yards away from the inbound. The Chinese missile shuddered, the flame of its rocket motor appeared to vibrate before impacting Montgomery’s bow seconds later.
The ship’s speed saved her. At 40 knots, an LCS “squats,” her stern sinking deeply and her bow elevating. The Chinese missile had impacted the ship’s bow right where the ship’s anchor was mounted, pushing the anchor back into the windlass room, killing a Bosun’s Mate and starting a fire. The missile fragmented when it struck the anchor. Its remnants punched through the aluminum deck on the foc’sle, directing shrapnel topside, but there were no crewmembers stationed there. The only other casualty besides the Bosun’s Mate was the starboard lookout, knocked down by a piece of shrapnel in her shoulder. Montgomery kept her speed on, slowing slightly due to her wrecked bow. Omaha signaled “Make best speed” as all ships anxiously scanned the horizon for more missiles.
South China Sea, 5 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2252 Local
Montgomery had fallen slightly astern of her sisters. The ship’s aluminum hull continued to burn where the missile had struck, fed by wind. There was nothing to be done. The division was too close to the enemy. The ship’s speed was generating enough wind to keep the smoke from obstructing the bridge crew. Omaha’s Captain had ordered a loose column formation now, with Omaha at its head, followed by Jackson 500 yards behind, Gabrielle Giffords astern of Jackson and the wounded Montgomery about 2000 yards behind Gabrielle Giffords. The two EPFs held their position 20 miles offshore, waiting to be told the pier had been secured so they could deliver their cargo. Hassan was grateful to be piloting the flagship, as her place at the head of the column meant he just needed to steer an ordered course rather than attempt to hold station on another ship.
The chaos at Fiery Cross was visible to the naked eye, but Hassan had no time to watch. He could see tracers, presumably attempting to engage the Vipers, reaching toward the sky and sometimes crossing his field of view. The ship’s Combat Information Center had reestablished communications with the Vipers. Three were still airborne, though low on fuel and out of ammunition. They had reported the channel was still clear and that one Chinese auxiliary was tied up at the pier on the north side of the basin. They continued to circle and draw fire from the island’s defenders. One had been shot down on approach, and one had been shot down immediately after destroying the cruise missile battery that had fired on Montgomery. A third had simply vanished.
Aboard all four ships, sailors and marines swarmed over the flight decks, setting up machine gun positions to engage targets ashore. Sailors manning the 57 mm guns and Hellfire missile consoles waited impatiently for targets.
The entrance to the harbor was on the island’s northeast corner. The division’s approach from the southeast meant Hassan would now lead the column in a looping turn. Keeping the other ships close would concentrate their firepower and minimize the amount of time the Chinese had to target ships in the narrow channel. Once in the basin, Hassan would keep his speed on until the last minute, relying on Omaha’s ability to stop almost instantaneously to moor safely.
The British yeoman passed the order for the other three ships to “close up,” decreasing the distance between them to 250 yards. At that distance, if Omaha slowed Jackson would have almost no opportunity to react, smashing into her stern. The XO stood behind Hassan again, laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
At two miles out, the Captain moved to the starboard bridge wing and started feeding targets to his 57 mm and Hellfire gunners. There were a pair of Chinese machine gun nests on either side of the channel entrance. The 57 mm gun opened up on the one to the right and a pair of Hellfires demolished the nest to the left, a small figure briefly running around aflame afterward before falling and lying still, still burning.
Omaha charged towards the entrance, passing the remains of the fighting position as she proceeded up the short channel. On her port bow, a set of towers, shattered by American missiles, burned fiercely. The heat was palpable in the bridge and a gust of wind caused the Captain and yeoman, now on the port side to cringe slightly, distracting them from a pair of figures running around the base of the ruined structure. The Captain’s eyes went wide and he barely had time to yell “RPG” before the grenade detonated just above his head, killing him and the yeoman instantly and spraying a cone of shrapnel into the pilothouse. The blast was deafening and Hassan’s head snapped to the right as a metal shard buried itself in his Kevlar helmet. He heard Dunleavy grunt to his left and was vaguely aware of the XO down on the deck to his right. Two sailors on the flight deck with an M240 machine gun engaged the RPG team, tracer rounds reaching out before the Chinese could reload.
Hassan’s vision swam as he forced himself to concentrate, the channel opening into the basin before him. The Chinese auxiliary was visible, moored along the pier to his right. “Range to the pier?” he screamed to Dunleavy. Receiving no response, he looked over and saw a shard of metal the size of his hand sticking out of the side of Mike’s head which was lolling forward on his chest. Horrified, he looked down at his own display, making a snap estimate that he had less than 500 yards to the pier. He undid the seat belt restraining him, noticing the XO stirring as he, out of habit, announced “transitioning to the centerline console” before standing and moving to a position where he could see his navigation screen, his cameras and look out the windows.
The weapons teams aboard all four ships were fully in the fight. The sound of small arms, main guns and Hellfire missiles on the American side and Chinese small arms and RPGs made it impossible to hold a conversation.
The XO clambered to his feet and moved beside Hassan. Commander Dennis’s left hand was clamped on his right arm and blood was seeping between his fingers. He fumbled for his radio and gave a terse order inaudible to Hassan over the sound of the ongoing battle. Hassan altered the control mode for the engines, allowing himself to independently control the port and starboard engines. To get the ramp onto the pier, he would need to walk the ship sideways. He was already cutting speed as Omaha passed the Chinese auxiliary.
Marilyn Starnes led a pair of sailors onto the bridge. The XO started gesturing toward Mike Dunleavy’s inert form and a small fire burning on the port bridge wing. One of the sailors blasted the fire with a CO2 extinguisher while Starnes and the second sailor extracted Dunleavy. Starnes took the seat, slick with Dunleavy’s blood and zoomed in her navigation screen to help Hassan.
Hassan had mostly checked Omaha’s forward motion as she cleared the Chinese auxiliary’s stern. He was trying to pivot the ship on her bow, twisting the stern too rapidly into the light offsetting wind and throwing two sailors, heavily loaded and caught off-balance, over the side along with their M240 machine gun. Everyone else on the flight deck unconsciously pressed themselves into the ship’s non-skid.
Hassan reached down for the ship’s Azimuth Thruster or ‘Azi,’ realizing belatedly, he’d forgotten to engage it as he slowed. The Azi was powered by an 800 horsepower motor that would not only move the bow left or right, but tended to make the entire ship slide sideways. It was ideal for this sort of pier work. Marilyn saw his hand hesitate and jumped out of her seat. She ran back to the engineer’s console, pushing the slumped body of the Engineering Officer of the Watch back just enough to energize and lower the Azi and flashed him a thumbs-up. Hassan rotated the handle to angle the Azi towards the pier and increased power.
The volume of fire from the flight deck increased as Omaha’s rate-of-turn slowed and gunners identified more targets ashore. The fire slackened when one of the Vipers passed overhead, paused and started to lower itself onto the pier. The XO moved to the starboard bridge wing and watched, uncomprehending, until he saw the pilot and his gunner shut the helicopter down, jump out and run towards the ship’s bow and stern, respectively, to receive mooring lines. The petty officers at the line handling stations didn’t wait for an order, firing line guns towards both of the marines while machine gun crews provided covering fire. The marines retrieved the thin red messenger lines and began hauling the ship’s heavier mooring lines over.
Hassan was walking the ship sideways, less than 50 yards from the pier, his lateral movement in excess of the schoolhouse-approved 0.7 knots, but not caring. The XO was hanging halfway over the side of the ruined bridgewing, watching Omaha close the pier. Ahead, he could see Jackson pirouetting to make her own landing. Montgomery stood in the center of the basin, her nose still ablaze as her 57 mm gun pumped round after round ashore. In the distance, Gabrielle Giffords’ upper superstructure was engulfed in flames. She had run full-speed into the pier on the far side of the basin. Dennis stared for a second before looking back down and watching Omaha’s side sliding inexorably towards the pier.
Hassan felt the ship impact the pier before his digital display changed and, whispering “wind out, toe out” to himself, he threw the ship’s starboard side engine 30 degrees “out,” pinning Omaha to the pier. The bow was still coming in when the XO roared “Land the Landing Force” into his handheld radio, watching as the mission bay door dropped and the marines stormed out.
Commander Jared Samuelson is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded USS Whirlwind (PC 11).
Featured Image: “USS Independence in Operation” by Yinan Shao via Artstation