Sailors in Far East stunned,
angered by USS Cole incident

By Steve Liewer
Stars and Stripes

If some Middle East terrorists want to pick a fight with the U.S. Navy, there are plenty of sailors and Marines in the Western Pacific who are ready.

Just ask Marine Cpl. Steve Stewart, 21, on temporary assignment at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

"This is World War III," he said. "I’ll give it another month. We’ll be going back there. I think we have to go back there and show them not to mess with the United States."

"I want some payback," added Petty Officer 3rd class Dion Eisman, 21, who works in the ordnance section at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. "They killed people."

The news of Thursday’s suicide attack in Yemen against the Navy destroyer USS Cole spread like a fire around Pacific military bases. It hit especially hard in the Far East Navy bases that so often send ships for duty in the Persian Gulf.

"No Christmas for us. We’re going to war," said Airman Kendra Hutchison, an aviation ordnanceman aboard the Yokosuka-based USS Kitty Hawk. "The Kitty Hawk is usually the first one to go."

Rumors spread across the bases at Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, that the president might quickly dispatch 7th Fleet ships to the Persian Gulf — a scenario that is not far-fetched, given the fleet’s reputation for responding quickly to emergencies.

But Lt. Jeff Davis, a fleet spokesman, said his command has not received orders to sail west, and no indication that they will go. Four 7th Fleet ships that have been at sea are scheduled for port visits in the next week: the carrier USS Kitty Hawk and the cruiser USS Vincennes to Otaru, Japan; the cruiser USS Chancellorsville to Fukuoka, Japan; and the USS Cowpens to Vladivostok, Russia. All are still scheduled to join in Operation Foal Eagle, a joint exercise with the South Korean military, later this month.

"There have been no changes to any schedule," Davis said.

The bombing — the first hostile fire against a U.S. Navy ship since 1991 — sent a shiver through many sailors, and especially their families.

"It’s devastating," said Petty Officer 2nd class Dale Stafford, 32, a hospitalman at Yokosuka. "If you’re in the military, your family is going to get worried, whether you’re away from home or not."

The news gave pause to two Sasebo sailors who were just heading to sea aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex for the first time Friday.

"It’s kind of exciting and scary at the same time," said Airman Daniel Butts, 19. "Personally, I don’t want to go over there. But I’ll still go anywhere I have to."

"I haven’t even headed out to the fleet yet," said Seaman Jamie LeAnn Ellis, 18, also bound for the Essex. "And with this happening, I think it is kind of scary."

The 4-year-old Cole, which survived the attack in Aden, Yemen, but was reportedly listing, is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer employing the Aegis missile-defense system. Two of its sister ships, the USS John S. McCain and the USS Curtis Wilbur, are based in Yokosuka. Both were at sea on Friday.

But several sailors at Yokosuka’s Aegis Training and Readiness Center who have served on Arleigh Burke-class ships said they couldn’t help but put themselves in the shoes of Cole’s sailors.

"I pictured the general area (where the explosion occurred)," said Petty Officer 1st class Ritchie Andrews. "I walked through it so many times before."

"I have a friend stationed on the Cole, and I have no idea if he’s all right," said Petty Officer 1st class Bobby Johnson, who served on the USS Arleigh Burke from 1995-98. "It hit … near the mess decks, in a major passageway. It couldn’t hit at a worse place really. They couldn’t have picked it by accident."

Past terrorist acts — the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the 1996 Khobar Towers explosion in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa — have faded a bit with time. The killings blooded a new generation of American servicemembers.

"It’s a sad incident, I don’t care what nationality you are," said Twanda Arrington, whose husband, Ray, is a petty officer 1st class aboard the USS Blue Ridge. "This kind of jolts you into reality — this kind of thing can happen to anyone. Just because you’re on an American ship doesn’t mean you’re safe."

Donovan Brooks, Rick Chernitzer and Greg Tyler contributed to this report.