When it comes to a large-scale amphibious operation like Bold Alligator, it isn’t just the movement to shore that can provide learning lessons.
The thousands of personnel who deployed off the coast of North Carolina for the exercise also got a first-hand lesson in life at sea. That may not be new to most of the sailors and some of the Marines on board, but for thousands more, it certainly was.
Point in case: the photograph above shows how tight the passageways aboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp are. It takes a mindful eye to avoid collisions, spills and other hassles while maneuvering the vessel, and many service members underway weren’t aware of that until they arrived.
There’s also the matter of berthing. Like many ships, the 41,000-ton Wasp has bunks that are packed tightly together in stacks between three and five high. There is less than three feet between the stacks, and not enough room to roll over in a bunk without rapping your knees on the bunk above. And that’s to say nothing of the bathrooms, one of which flooded while we were there.
None of this was news to the folks planning Bold Alligator, but it was to many of the rank-and-file personnel on board. I listened with amusement over the weekend as two staff sergeants had an animated debate over whether it was more comfortable to be sleeping on a cot in Afghanistan, or on a bunk on the Wasp. One Marine advocated the merits of having more space in large tent, while the other noted that at least they weren’t sleeping somewhere with a dirt floor.
There’s also the logistical headaches. On Monday, we hopped a CH-53 helicopter with several other members of the media and a few Marines expecting to reach the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima for additional news coverage. Following original plans, the helo made its way back to the shore in North Carolina at the air stations in New River and Cherry Point to pick up more supplies.
When it returned to sea, however, the pilot ran into unexpected complications. He had anticipated landing on the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, but the flight deck was full, we were told. We moved on to the Iwo Jima, only to discover that its flight deck had been “fouled,” meaning something on its surface prevented landings. We returned to the Wasp at dusk, after more than two hours of flying in a circle.
Those are the breaks, to a large extent. They’re similar to transportation headaches I’ve seen in Afghanistan, in that schedules can shift rapidly and affect personnel on the ground.
For folks who expected everything to go smoothly, however, it simply wasn’t going to happen.