BREMERTON — Blowing a week’s worth of vacation to spend it among sailors and Marines aboard a super-carrier might not be everyone’s first choice, but for me, it was an unforgettable experience.
In the late ’80s and early 2000s while serving in the U.S. Navy, I spent time aboard many Navy ships, but only a few days onboard an aircraft carrier. So, thanks to an invitation from my son-in-law to be part a Navy program called the “Tiger Cruise,” I jumped at the chance to relive a sailor’s life aboard the USS Nimitz.
It has nothing in common with Tiger Woods and Tom Cruise — or golf and acting — for that matter. The program is a way for the Marine Corps and Navy to “give back” to friends and relatives by allowing them to see what life on the seagoing city-ship is like.
It’s called a cruise, but nothing like what you might experience aboard a typical Princess Cruises sailing. Passengers must be invited and have passed a medical exam and security screening before being allowed on a Tiger Cruise.
My adventure — and the Nimitz departure — originated in San Diego. The week-long cruise back to her homeport of Bremerton tested my ability to live alongside 3,300 sailors and 200 Marines, and better understand the Navy’s mission and how the Nimitz’s departments onboard support it.
I began my journey in San Diego knowing the Nimitz is the longest aircraft carrier in the world. But when she glided into San Diego Harbor, it was evident this was going to be a whole new adventure. The massive ship is overwhelming in person. As big as three football fields, she is loaded with the most sophisticated equipment and weaponry available.
Onboard, I was surprised by how much freedom us “Tigers” (as we were called) were given. There were, of course, clearly marked “restricted areas,” and the flight deck and fantail were off limits to Tigers after dark. But there was plenty we were allowed to see during daily tours of the ship. The remainder of the time, I freely roamed the ship and interacted with the crew.
As a Tiger aboard ship, I could choose how much I wanted to interact with the Nimitz population. Some days, I tried to slam as many tours in as possible.
At other times, I would pick up a broom and help the sailors during the morning “cleaning stations” or help bring “ships stores” up from below decks to the galley. In between, I would just shoot the breeze with crew members in the galley or catch the sunset on the flight deck, followed by a movie in one of the lounges.
The hangar bay quickly became my favorite part of the ship. It’s where most of the crew would congregate after working hours to exercise or play a quick game of basketball.
It was enlightening to spend hours chatting with one crew member or another about their hometown, significant other or just about how hot it was in the Persian Gulf. It was unanimous: it’s really hot there.
Around the second day of our trip, the Navy set up an airshow for the Tigers. We watched helicopter operations, F-18 Hornet and Super Hornet touch-and-go landings first-hand as they took part in training exercises.
Later that evening, we watched a sea power show that including target practice of the carrier and her escort destroyers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Some Tigers were standing 15 feet away from the planes that were taking off and landing. I couldn’t believe they let us get so close. You could really feel the heat and noise when they took off and landed.
Throughout the trip, I slept in an extremely small berth — its width measured in inches, not feet — alongside other sailors. That’s where the human factor disrupted my back-home sleep patterns. Unfortunately for me, the person above and below my rack snored in harmony, which added to the unforgettable grit of the experience.
I learned that, unlike the smaller craft on which I served, the Nimitz functions much like a floating city, with everyone pitching in, whether they were sweeping the decks or giving orders. This engendered a sense of camaraderie, purpose and being part of something bigger than just yourself.
I didn’t know it back in my Navy days, but that is what I really would miss after leaving the service. Everyone has a job to do every day, and one job is not any less vital than another job.
The Navy I served in and the Navy now, though carrying out similar missions, has many important differences. It is much more technologically based today, with computers often handling the jobs we did. It’s worth noting the hard-working crew also enjoys amenities I could only have dreamed of. Thanks to satellite technology, they can stay in contact with their families back home. For an “old salt” like myself, I was impressed with the way the Navy has integrated women onboard today.
On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we were out at sea, listening to a narration through the ship’s intercom about the sneak attack by the Japanese, which catapulted the United States into World War II.
On Nimitz some 76 years later, there were sailors and Tigers spanning many generations bonding in a singular moment, many with tears in their eyes.
The experience brought home to me as a Tiger, a Navy veteran, a father and an American, the sacrifices that sailors past and present made aboard that ship and on others for the nation and our allies.
As the ship sailed into Puget Sound and the landmarks became increasingly familiar, I knew my short time onboard was drawing to a close. As she docked and I walked down the gangway toward home, I turned to look back at the mighty warship that that brought all of us home safely. All I could think of, was “good show,” then turned and returned to my civilian life.
“Good show,” indeed.