Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Reservists work on docks, but not here Unit from Baltimore loads gulf war cargo up, down East Coast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bayonne, N.J. -- Craig G. Rice expected to spend the fall and winter terms stuffing knowledge into students at Deer Park Middle School in Randallstown. Instead, he has been stuffing ships with tanks, Patriot missile launchers, trucks and other necessities of war.

His Army reserve transportation unit, based in the Curtis Bay section of Baltimore, was activated in August, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Since then, Lieutenant Colonel Rice and the approximately 80 others in his unit have shuttled up and down the East Coast, from one port to another, to supervise the loading of ships supporting the huge military buildup in the Middle East.

Dressed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots, Colonel Rice directed longshoremen loading military cargo onto the Navy cargo ship Bellatrix in Bayonne last week.

"Our mission in life is to load vessels," he said while watching trucks go up a steel ramp onto the Bellatrix. "For this equipment to get over there, there have to be people on the home front to send it there."

Colonel Rice and his transportation unit are part of a largely unheralded team of soldiers, civilian mariners and longshoremen working long hours under often difficult conditions to perform a Herculean task: moving huge quantities of heavy equipment and supplies needed by the U.S. military machine in the Arabian desert.

It is hard to imagine just how much material these people are moving to sustain Operation Desert Storm. According to the Navy's Military Sealift Command, the armada of cargo ships under its control has moved 2 million tons of equipment, 1 million tons of supplies in containers and 8.4 million tons of fuel.

As of last week, the Navy said it had 241 cargo vessels with civilian crews at work in the supply effort, which had delivered 339 shiploads. In addition, 62 cargo ships were en route to the Persian Gulf with cargoes, while 71 were on their way back to ports to take on new loads and 20 ships were loading.

The magnitude of the task was suggested by the material marshaled on the docks in Bayonne for the Bellatrix. Acres of storage area alongside the Bellatrix were covered by row after row of vehicles -- low-slung trucks, most of them painted tan for desert warfare but a few still wearing green, black and brown camouflage patterns; earth-moving equipment; and pairs of flatbed trailers, one strapped on top of the other.

At the rear of the dock, troop carriers, their windshields folded down and protected by wooden packing, waited on rail cars to be unloaded and driven onto the ship.

Keeping the material moving is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week effort that is putting a tremendous burden on the people and ships involved. Colonel Rice's unit has been working around the clock, with each soldier averaging 13 to 14 hours of work a day. About once a month, the soldiers get a weekend off to visit home. They have been doing this for months now, moving up and down the Eastern Seaboard to meet whatever ship needs to be loaded next.

The group started out in Wilmington, N.C., moved to Charleston, S.C., then came back up the coast to Bayonne. Jacksonville, Fla., was next. Last week found them back at the Army's Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne.

In late August, the reserve unit was activated for 90 days. That period has been extended through late February, but Colonel Rice has no illusions that he will be back in the classroom this spring. He expects to be loading ships for some time to come. "Until we're released from active duty, we'll keep doing it," he said.

The civilian dockworkers who drive the cargo on board or guide it into place as it is lowered into the holds by the ship's cranes are also working punishing hours.

"We work till we finish," said Nicholas Furina, hiring boss of the crews, which are drawn from the ranks of the International Longshoremen's Association. The stevedores are working long shifts, sometimes 24 or 30 hours at a stretch with only four or five hours off between starts, he said. "They're tired, but because of the war, they're extending themselves," he said.

AThe demands of the sealift are just as evident aboard the ship as they are ashore. The importance of the ship's mission has meant considerable hardship for the civilian mariners who make up the Bellatrix's crew.

Chief Mate David Kelly, a 36-year-old resident of Gainesville, Fla., has been on board since Sept. 21. During the ship's three voyages in that time he has been working virtually non-stop. Now he'd like a rest. Normally, he would now be entitled to some shore leave. But because of a shortage of seamen caused by the sudden surge in U.S.-flag ships required by the sealift, Mr. Kelly's union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, District 2, was been unable to find someone to replace him.

As chief mate, Mr. Kelly's duties include supervising the stowing of the cargo as it is brought aboard the ship. Standing on one of the cargo decks near a Patriot missile launcher, his hands covered with oil anddirt from handling the chains used to secure the vehicles to the ship's decks, Mr. Kelly did not seem very hopeful that he would get to see his wife and 6-year-old daughter for at least another month and half -- the time it would take the ship to sail to Saudi Arabia, unload its cargo and return to the United States.

"I'm waiting for relief. I don't know if I'll get it," he said. "I want to take this trip off because I'm exhausted. If they don't find anybody, I have no choice."

The Bellatrix is one of eight fast former commercial containerships bought by the government and converted for military duty. It has been a mainstay of the sealift to the Middle East.

Most commercial cargo vessels cruise at less than 20 knots; the Bellatrix and the seven other ships travel at 30 knots and are capable of 35.

The ship's speed allows it to deliver its cargo quickly and sprint back to a loading port for more. The average ship in the Desert Storm sealift has delivered less than two full loads, but the Bellatrix has made four voyages and is about to begin its fifth.

Ruggero F. Romor, the Bellatrix's captain, has commanded the ship on all four of its trips to Saudi Arabia since the buildup in the Middle East began. Rank may have its privileges, but time off is not one of them. Captain Romor has managed one evening away from the ship in all that time. Last Sunday, he took the short trip across the river from New Jersey to Manhattan to see a current movie, "The Awakening."

Staying on the ship doesn't seem to bother him. "I love to be here. I need to be here," he said, sitting in his sparsely furnished office in the ship's house.

What does bother him is the difficulty of finding qualified mariners, particularly officers. The ship is supposed to have a crew of 42, but just a day before he expected to set sail he was about 10 people short. Engineers, the officers who oversee the operation and maintenance of the ship's engines, are in especially short supply.

The ship probably would have to sail without the usual number of engineers, according to the captain, who said he expected to give the ship's chief electrician the title of acting third engineer.

The strain of non-stop operations and the lack of engineers i showing on the ships as well. One of the Bellatrix's two steam turbine engines suffered a partial breakdown on its last return voyage from the Persian Gulf. Instead of the usual 30 knots, the ship was limited to 26 knots. Repairs proceeded on the engine as the shore crews were loading cargo onto the ship.

The problems of keeping the ship running were evident down in the engine room, which Captain Romor termed "the inferno." It does look like something a 20th century Dante might have dreamed up. Rising several stories from the keel, the engine compartment is a jumble of pipes -- small and medium-sized ones clad in silver insulating material slither over under and around an immense dark green one perhaps 4 feet in diameter.

The ship's four steam turbines are powered by two steam boilers, the largest ones ever installed on a ship.

Keith S. Faulkner, 60, the Bellatrix's chief engineer, knows the function of all of the pipes, dials and valves. He is proud of what the ship's engines can do. "Half disabled she still makes 25 to 26 knots," he observed. That's faster than most ships travel under full power. "When we're broke down we still pass them."

Mr. Faulkner seems to genuinely enjoy life in the inferno. "I quit the deck many years ago to come down and get an honest job," he said.

There are real frustrations, however. Because of the short crews, "the biggest problem is getting time to do the repairs correctly," he said. "If we had full crews like we should have, we wouldn't have this problem."

Mr. Faulkner doesn't expect much help soon. He realizes full welthat not many people are interested in a working in the hot, dangerous environment of a ship's engine room, especially in time of war. It's a "dead-end job," he said, and the only ones interested in it seem to be "old buggers like me."

Short of help or not, he said, he'll keep the Bellatrix running and the war material flowing to the Mideast.

"It will get there; don't worry about that," Mr. Faulkner said. Thehe headed up the ladder, summoned by one of the other crew members needing help on repairs.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°