NORFOLK, Va. - Richard Allan was in a strange engine room, surrounded by crew members he'd never met, facing problems he'd scarcely had time to contemplate. The military cargo ship Cape Ann had been ordered back to life after more than a year in mothballs, and the three days since Allan climbed aboard were a blur of steel, grease, oil and steam like he'd rarely known in his quarter-century at sea.
"The biggest problem? They want us to sail Sunday morning," said Allan, a merchant seaman from Severna Park enlisted as the Cape Ann's temporary chief engineer. "That's always on our minds. If things break, we fix them; but everything is focused on leaving the pier Sunday morning."
Similar scenes have taken place inside gray-hulled ships in ports and shipyards around the country in recent weeks as the Navy conducts one of the largest tests ever of the nation's dormant military cargo vessels. Over the past month, 23 ships such as the Cape Ann have been ordered, without notice, to hire crews, power up and put out to sea to prove they are ready for war.
Pentagon officials say that the tests are routine and that the timing has to do with the end of the federal fiscal year, not any impending need to haul war supplies to the Persian Gulf.
But the ships being tested would be critical to waging war in Iraq, representing the country's only means of moving large mechanized Army divisions from the United States to the Middle East. The vessels, used extensively during the gulf war of 1991 but mostly idle since, have been ordered on more surprise drills in the past four weeks than they are in a normal year.
"A test is fairly standard, but it's also prudent, given the current situation," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Jim Perkins, former commander of the Military Sealift Command. "If we're going into Iraq, we'll need those ships."
The Pentagon keeps about 95 empty cargo vessels in ports around the country, some with skeleton crews aboard, others watched only by electronic alarms. Most, like the Cape Ann, are part of the Ready Reserve Force, managed by the U.S. Maritime Administration.
In late August, the U.S. Transportation Command ordered 10 vessels in the Ready Reserve Force to hire full crews, leave port and conduct drills at sea. In mid-September, it ordered the test activation of 13 more. The test was the largest activation drill of the Ready Reserve Force since 29 vessels were called up in 1998.
The recent tests highlighted the improved condition of the ships. During the Persian Gulf war, some mothballed vessels were in such bad shape that they never left port. The federal government has spent $200 million or more each year since then keeping the vessels cleaned and maintained.
The Cape Ann, for instance, should have been one of the worst ships in the fleet. It has no permanent crew performing maintenance, and it spent the past year and a half tied up in the James River "ghost fleet" near Norfolk. When activated Sept. 13, the vessel had to be towed to a Norfolk shipyard so its machinery could be restored and temporary plating removed from its hull.
When Chief Mate Richard Alcott arrived, he expected the worst. Not only had the ship been subjected to the elements, but it is also 40 years old. His worries proved unfounded.
"This ship looks better than the one I'm on all the time," said Alcott, who normally works on grain-haulers. "There's hardly any rust, everything is greased, everything works. Somebody's been doing all the right things."
Alcott and other crew members were thankful for the ship's condition because the task of turning a dead ship into a military cargo platform - in just 10 days in the Cape Ann's case - is a daunting one. Once in the shipyard, the vessel became a swarm of crewmen, shipyard workers, contractors and government regulators, all at work assembling a floating warehouse inside the empty steel shell.
Safety equipment was unpacked and inspected, lifeboats were tested and repaired. The sewage, sanitation, heating and air conditioning, electrical and ventilation systems had to be flushed out, cleaned off and made ready. The sheets, silverware, pots, pans and china had to be cleaned and inventoried.
Machines, pumps and motors were reassembled, greased, tested or overhauled where necessary, with particular attention to critical systems such as steering gear, the anchor windlass, and navigational and communications equipment on the bridge.
Halfway through the process, Capt. Francis Goodwin was in his office, wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt and sprawled over a deskload of paperwork. Only the anchor tattooed on his right forearm betrayed his 17-year career at sea.
Asked what he was doing, Goodwin walked over to a file cabinet - empty until days before - and revealed an ever-thickening folder of documents, payroll records and other paper traces of the ship's brief, yet active new life.
"That's about half of it," he said.
The drills also underscored what is considered the greatest weakness of the military's cargo fleet - the shortage of qualified crew members. The activation required some crewmen to work aboard more than one vessel, so each ship had an adequate crew to sail.
On the Cape Ann, crew members were assembled from Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas and Puerto Rico - wherever they could be found. Some came straight from ships that had already completed their drills, a tactic that wouldn't work during a crisis, when all the vessels would be expected to sail simultaneously. Allan flew home from a drill on the West Coast and was asked to report to the Cape Ann a day later. Chief Steward Charles Archie said the Cape Ann's was his fourth activation drill this year.
The Pentagon can do little to resolve the shortages quickly because military cargo ships like the Cape Ann are not operated by Navy sailors but by civilian mariners from the U.S. Merchant Marine. And the merchant marine has withered so badly over the past decade or more that only a few thousand qualified mariners remain.
The Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, a union of licensed engineering officers, posted a notice to members last week that it was having difficulty finding enough deck officers for service in the Ready Reserve Force. The 23 ships activated represented barely a quarter of the reserve fleet.
The Pentagon also keeps more than 30 ships loaded with military supplies and "pre-positioned" around the globe. Under most war scenarios, those vessels - many stationed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean - would be the first deployed.
But the pre-positioned ships could outfit only a light division or small invading force. Moving the real firepower of the American military - tank-laden divisions like the 24th Mechanized Infantry or the 1st Armored Cavalry - would require dozens, perhaps hundreds more cargo ships. During the gulf war, more than 200 commercial and military cargo vessels were used, including 79 from the Ready Reserve Force. And the build-up lasted for nearly six months.
"If you want to go into Iraq with the big Army divisions - the real take it and hold it power - then you're going to need the Ready Reserve Force to get them there," Perkins said. "The notion that we're going to sneak an armored division into Iraq and wake up one morning ready to fight is just crazy.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see the entire RRF activated," he said. "But then the question becomes: Where will they find the guys to operate it?"
'A lot to do'
A dead ship such as the Cape Ann is bare of anything hazardous or perishable, so food, paint, fuel, and cleaning supplies were all brought on anew. Drinking water had to be purified and certified by inspectors. New charts and computers were brought aboard.
The steam plant was brought on line slowly, and only after the boiler water was purified, the environmental safeties certified, and fire-fighting and emergency breathing devices checked.
Coast Guard inspectors were aboard for much of the drill, certifying that the ship was safe, pollution-free, and that its crew was trained and competent. Other federal officials were on hand to advise and observe.
"It's really amazing what they can accomplish, because there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong," said Art Fritz of the Maritime Administration. "It could even be something you wouldn't consider critical, like the pump that pushes water for the toilets. If that breaks, you can't go to sea."
Said Alcott: "We're our own fire department, our own medical department, our own cooks, our own mechanics. There's a lot to do."
Only one vessel failed to activate on time during the tests - because it hit a bridge while being towed into port. The Cape Ann, with 10 days to get under way, needed only nine.
"There's always something going wrong, always something that has to be fixed, some crisis," said Allan, shouting above the whine of the ship's diesel generator, which had been turned on earlier that day when the ship overloaded its circuits and lost shore power.
"But that's just the way it is on any ship. We'll be ready when it's time to go."