Sunday, January 22, 2006

How Ariel Sharon touched my life......

I find it oddly macabre to be watching the news magazines lately. All 3 of the "biggies" had the same cover headline. "After he is gone...." . I think that's a little morbid if you ask me.

However actions of Ariel Sharon had impact on literally millions of people, for both good and ill, and I was one of those who was affected by the actions that were set forth by Israel; actions he either planned, or directed to be planned and executed. There is nothing of major historical significance here, it just shows how events in one corner of the globe affect folks thousands of miles away............

First the history. On June 6, 1982, a massive invasion of Lebanon ("Operation Peace for Galilee") was undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Israel announced its intention to oust the PLO from Lebanon, and to create a 25 mile "sanitary cordon" to protect its northern settlements. By mid July, more than 100,000 IDF troops were in Lebanon and Beirut was under siege. In the south, the Israelis dug in. On August 21, as a result of the diplomatic mediation of US envoy, Philip Habib, the PLO began the evacuation of its troops from Beirut and headed for Tunis. On September 1, as the last PLO guerrillas were shipping out of Beirut, President Reagan announced his "Reagan Plan" for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. On September 14, 1982, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayal was killed in a bomb explosion just one week before he was due to be sworn in. His brother, Amin, was elected president in his place. The Israeli Defense Forces under the command of Ariel Sharon moved into Beirut and occupied the city. On Thursday, September 16, 1982, Lebanese Christian Phalangist troops, with the IDF looking on from surrounding rooftops, entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut and, bent on avenging Bashir Gemayel's killing, began massacring the residents. The killing continued until Saturday morning. At least 700 - 800 were killed, with some estimates ranging up to 2,000. Years later (in 2001), there was pressure to charge Ariel Sharon as a war criminal for doing nothing to try to stop the massacres .


IDF Soldiers on the move.

That last event had particular significance for yours truly in his, to that point, rather short naval career.

Cut now to the silhouette of USS America (CV-66) anchored in the Harbor , Portsmouth England. The ship and air wing were just beginning the second of two long port visits to Edinburgh and Portsmouth, with only a 40 hour transit in between. Young Skippy-san having spent copious sums of money on beer and golf in the Scottish capital and having an ex wife who was already beginning to show her wastrel spending habits, had arranged to take duty the first 2 days in port so that payday could arrive after ac ouple of days liberty and he could re-arm his "pound" machine gun, for further ripple fire action in the pubs in London and Manchester. The beauty of the 2 day in a row arrangement of standing duty ( which involved staying on the ship doing mundane and useless jobs such as standing boat officer, intergrity watch officer and pretending I was doing work in both the ready room and my stateroom) was that it meant I had four days off straight afterwards. Nothing to be sneezed at in a projected 10 day port visit.


CV-66 also known to us as CV-666, aka, Satan's Flagship!

Duty over, a hearty breakfast eaten- always eat before you leave the ship, one never knows when you will eat again-and I and my mates were off the ship and riding a liberty boat to Portsmouth Naval Base, then to catch the train to London and the adventures that waited there.


HMS Victory

Ashore we proceeded to the train station. Figured I would be able to see Portsmouth in mid rage since I would have to come back to cash a check. This of course being back in the stone age before ATM's and the internet........I knew I would need more money to go see Wales which was one of my goals. London of course had to be my main first day trip. All of which was made available to me by the wonders of British Rail. I was in a country with reliable train service. Is this a great country or what?

We arrived at Victoria Station just before mid day. Guess we needed to go to a pub for lunch. At least I think that is what we did. Then the circuit of all the sites we could see in a day, Big Ben; Tower of London, sights along the Thames, Winchester cathedral. Then to Piccadilly Circus as it got dark on into a pub crawl going to various tourist pubs listed in our guide book. Pound consumption was high as was our beer consumption. It was probably a good thing they closed at 11 PM. We had arranged a hotel earlier. Next day off to see more sites, having decided to forgo Manchester since London was a lot bigger than we thought. Besides there were still pubs on our list!

Looking at my cash vs credit card situation, I knew I was going to have to go back to the ship to bounce cash another check. So I decided the next morning I would head back to Portsmouth, get on the ship, get done, get back off, and explore Portsmouth. My buddies not being burdened with marital baggage, they were going to go on to see Wales. Quite proud of my self for being able to skillfully manage the underground so early in the morning and nursing a "creeper"-a hangover that feels fine when you wake up but overtakes you as the day goes on- and got on train out of Portsmouth about 7:30 or so.

Back in Portsmouth, the something seemed very out of place. As I walked the streets back the way I thought was to the Naval Station this feeling of unease grew on me. I knew it had nothing to do with the beer I had consumed the night before. Something was out of place. All the people I saw looked too normal...and way too British. If there is one thing about American Sailors, despite all the adages to "blend in", they stick out like a sore thumb. Even more so in 1982 before having short hair became fashionable again. "Liberty boats must not be running", I thought, " Must be really rough out on the harbor".

Got onto the base, walked past HMS Victory and around to where the USS Mt Whitney was berthed. She was still there! That meant the USS America beach detachment and the boat lines were soon to be seen. Another left, then another right and..........nothing but a stone pier and the water lapping up against it.

Uh Oh.... .

Turning back toward the Mt Whitney I saw a line of Sailors with America shoulder tabs on their whites. They soon set me straight.

"Sir you need to get on the Mt Whitney ASAP. The ship got underway this morning, port visit' s cancelled. They will be shuttling helos in here as soon as they can."

OOOPS! This is not going to be a good day!


Contemplating the end of my life and my career, cut short after only a few years, and walked on up the brow thinking about how I was going to explain to the missus that I was going to soon become a new addition to the wardroom of NAF Adak, Alaska. If I was lucky to survive the ass chewing and letter of reprimand that was sure to come. After all , missing the ship's movement was a court martial offense. Once aboard I discovered of course, that I was not alone. Misery loves company!

Well you can probably guess the rest. I, regrettably, was one of the guys who made it onto a helo and was flown out to the ship with probably 100 other folks. The rest were rounded up and taken to an airfield where they came out by the Carrier On board delivery aircraft the next day. The final stragglers, one of my buddies included, had to be moved down to Rota Spain to catch the ship before it went through the straits of Gibraltar. Now those guys took some abuse! In the end with the need to make the flight schedule and the fact that some 450+ total got left behind at first all was forgiven....this time.

Gradually the facts about the massacre came out and so did the reason for our pre-mature depature. The USS Independence was surged from the Western Mediterranean to take up station off Lebanon. To do exactly what, they and we were never quite sure of. However it was decided we would enter the "Med" behind them proceed South of Sicily and wait to see what happened. We steamed east , flying when we could not sure what we would be doing when we got there. After all who were we going to bomb? The Israelis? Nobody thought that was a possibility. Nonetheless we planned various targets, steamed a couple of days in circles waiting for tasking.

Finally it was decided. Independence would stay off of Lebanon. We thought for sure they would send us home because we were supposed to go on cruise in December and as it was we were going to be 3 weeks late getting home......No wait, there was this NATO exercise in the Aegean Sea. Could we, would we, just go up there and fly it? Which we did. ( Flying from a carrier in the Aegean is a story unto itself...).

Exercise complete we turned west. Our reward for a job well done? No port visit in Palma as we had hoped. We got sent to Puerto Rico so we could drop all the live ordnance we were supposed to have expended earlier. That kept us at sea for an additional 21 days. So, some 3 and a half months after we left on what was only supposed to have been a 5 week work up we arrived in Norfolk in the second week of November. 30 days later we were on our way back to the Mediterranean and eventually a trip through the Suez and on to the Indian Ocean. In all 11 months gone out of 13 when it was all said and done.

No moral here really except that perhaps the world is very interconnected and events in one corner produce ripple effects that touch the lives of insignificant people such as myself. I happen to think Sharon did a lot for Israel and of course I am a big fan of Israel. Always will be.

It took me 10 more years to get back to London though...........

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