Shall Not Perish

My day on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

On May 12, I had the opportunity to spend 27 hours aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz Class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and the ship that President Bush landed on after toppling Saddam Hussein. The carrier was about 130 miles out to sea and our group landed on its flight deck in a C-2A Greyhound or “COD,” which is a twin-engine prop plane the Navy uses to transport personnel and cargo from the shore. Like all fixed wing planes that land on carriers the COD was “trapped” by one of the four wires stretched across the deck, when its tailhook locked into place. This meant we decelerated from about 128 miles an hour to zero in two-and-a-half seconds. It was quite a jolt.

On board the Lincoln were 5,000 men and women, a large proportion of them 19 and 20 years old, and every one with a task integral to defending you and me against the many enemies a free and prosperous people face in a world driven by envy and resentment, ignorance and hate. The carrier is a floating base which frees us from dependence on uncertain allies and the need for air space rights and a land presence in areas of the world – the Middle East in particular -- where the forces of jihad germinate and threaten us with modern weaponry. The USS Abraham Lincoln is part of a nine-ship strike force which includes an escort of guided-missile destroyers and frigates, and raises the total personnel involved in the coordinated mission to about 8,500.

During our visit, the weather was clear and the sun shining but the wind was brisk and the ocean white-capped. Nonetheless, if you didn’t look over the side, you would hardly be aware that we were at sea as we planed through the water at 20 knots, so smooth was our passage. This was not hard to explain since the ship is more than 1,000 feet in length and displaces 97,500 tons. Its anchor alone weighs 60,000 pounds and the anchor chain another 300,000. It’s not easy for the mind to encompass these magnitudes or for that matter others we encountered. For example the ship contains two nuclear power plants, is driven by four 75,000-shaft horse-power engines, and carries three and a half million gallons of jet fuel. It has four “evaporators” which can distill 400,000 gallons of drinking water a day, a capability put to humanitarian service in natural disaster zones during the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in the Pacific.

At the time of our arrival, the strike force was conducting training exercises in anticipation of a forthcoming deployment. The 60-wing air squadron, consisting of F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, was flying 12-hour shifts and participating in war games in which pilots launched from Pt. Mugu and other shore bases assumed the role of enemy craft. We were privileged to observe three sessions of launch and “recovery” (which is how the Navy describes the landing process) from the ship’s flight deck and bridge. It was an awesome sight as the F-18s came in every two minutes in identical flight patterns at 160 miles per hour and hit the trap wires – mostly the designated third wire, and did so not by dragging the hook but by hitting the wire itself. Every landing is filmed and every pilot graded. When I had a chance to talk to one of them, a young officer named Kyle Hartman, I asked him if the planes were radar-guided on the approaches. He said that as part of the training they were not. It was all eye-balled which made these performances even more extraordinary. Hartman had been in combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him about his education prior to joining the Navy and was told he was an engineering student and micro-biology major at Purdue before dropping out to enlist and go to flight school. Everything he knew about flying the Navy had taught him.

I was told a similar story by the crew member who took us on a tour of the ship’s magazine, where they break down, maintain, assemble and modify the most complex and advanced technological weapons systems, including smart bombs and guided missiles. I wish I could remember the detailed description he provided of the technologies involved in even one of these systems which he rattled off rapid-fire as though he were running through an ordinary grocery list. I asked him how long he had been doing this, and he answered four years. I asked him what he did before joining the Navy and he said, “I was stocking shelves in a retail store.”

When you have occasion to worry about the state of our civilian educational system or our civilian institutions generally, keep in mind that of all America’s institutions the military has been the least damaged by the tides of political correctness which have eroded the values that made our country strong. These two young men were as impressive achievements as the weapons systems themselves. The commanding officer of the strike force, Rear Admiral Mark Guadagnini, a combat pilot himself, gave us a talk which emphasized that our strength as a nation was not just a matter of technologies but of our values and the ideals which motivate us. It was therefore gratifying but not particularly surprising when I was dining in the crew mess and some of the pilots came over to thank me for the Freedom Center’s work.

The ship’s community takes ideas seriously. There is an on-board Lincoln shrine with the Gettysburg address and other Lincoln memorabilia. The ship’s crew pray together twice a day. The ship’s motto and its mission are provided by Lincoln’s words: Shall Not Perish – as in government of by and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

We departed on the COD, which had brought us there, by catapult -- the way all fixed wing planes are launched from the carrier’s flight deck, which does not provide enough space for a normal takeoff. The crew members who orchestrate the launch are called “Shooters” because that is a precise description of what takes place. Going from a standing position to 140 miles per hour in two-and-half seconds provided an even greater kick than the landing, and was a way for the passengers to remember the incredible job these young men and women and their commanding officers are doing to keep us free.

You can thank the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln and learn more about them on their Facebook page.