Two huge military supply ships were scheduled to leave Los Angeles Harbor for the Persian Gulf at daybreak today, becoming the first to leave local shipyards on a voyage that one anxious merchant seaman described as "a lot more dangerous than usual."
Though U.S. Navy and Defense Department officials would not disclose the specific assignments of the vessels, they did confirm Wednesday that the merchant vessels Cape Ducato and Meteor were slated to join the Navy's deployment in the Middle East.
Both vessels, cleaned and fueled in recent days at Terminal Island shipyards, will carry crews of about 40 merchant seamen. The ships will leave without military cargoes, and will pick up equipment and supplies at one of several U.S. naval ports during their two- to three-week voyage from San Pedro to the gulf.
"Most of the people wish they weren't going to a conflict like this. We really don't know what's expected of us," Mark Kalmus, a 32-year-old merchant seaman aboard the Cape Ducato, said Wednesday.
"Everybody is really busy, so there isn't a lot of time to chit-chat," he said. "We're so busy we're putting our nervousness aside."
The ships are the first from the Los Angeles port to be deployed to the Middle East since the conflict began. But three naval warships based in Long Beach and carrying about 900 sailors are already on duty in the region, said Lt. Cmdr. Steve Chesser, a Navy spokesman in Long Beach.
The 690-foot Cape Ducato and 540-foot Meteor are part of the U.S. Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Fleet of ships available to the Navy on five, 10 or 20 days' notice. Once activated, the ships are under command of the Navy's Military Sealift Command, now actively engaged in the Middle East operation, which is known as Desert Shield.
"These ships carry equipment in support of Desert Shield . . . (and) they are an essential element of the sea lift support for that operation," said Marge Holtz, director of public affairs for the command.
Steward assistant Kalmus, who signed up for the Cape Ducato last Thursday, said he was told his assignment would last four months. Kalmus, a merchant seaman for 11 years, said he was also told his ship might be sent to the Persian Gulf.
Once that assignment was made official, Kalmus said, he and other seamen assigned to the Cape Ducato experienced a range of emotions. "Shipping has been slow, so everybody is glad to have a job," said Kalmus, of Santa Monica. "But this one could be a lot more dangerous than usual."
Under rules of the Seafarer's International Union, Kalmus and other seamen assigned to the vessel cannot refuse an assignment once they have signed up, he said. "This is our job. We've got to do what we've got to do," he said.
A national official with the 85,000-member union said the reaction of merchant seamen called to duty in Los Angeles and elsewhere understandably has been mixed. "Merchant seamen are always taught that they are the nation's fourth arm of defense, that they have a role to play in providing logistical support for the military," said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
"So for them, the emotions are the same when it comes to going overseas as it would be for anyone. It doesn't matter if you're a paratrooper from Ft. Bragg or a seaman from some port."
The feeling is the same among families.
Last week, seaman Kalmus called his mother in Hughesville, Md., to tell her that he was going to the gulf. "She was upset," Kalmus said.