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WAR WITH IRAQ / SUPPORTING THE PILOTS | COLUMN ONE

The Grunts Behind the Glory

On carriers such as the Lincoln, pilots get the attention, but it is the sailors toiling below deck who keep the war machine going.

March 22, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN THE PERSIAN GULF — With flashy flight suits and valiant posture, the pilots who delivered the first airstrikes against Iraq are a focus of global attention. But aboard this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the air crews are merely the most visible players in a nautical ant colony where every movement contributes to the mission.

Those toiling below the flight deck play their parts out of the spotlight. Their names are not stenciled on fuselages, nor is their pride or peril often on display to the public. They assemble the bombs, rescue the missing, feed the crew and maintain order. They keep the planes flying, the catapults steaming, the trash cans empty and the gas tanks full.

The following three sailors, like the rest of the more than 5,500 inhabitants of this floating community, contribute in their way.

Even in combat, it takes a village.

The Rescuer

James Endicott spends his days preparing for what everyone hopes will never happen.

He packs parachutes for the fliers who might be shot down or have to ditch their aircraft. He is also ready to fight the fires that are among the most daunting disasters to befall ships at sea. And he deploys within five minutes of a man-overboard announcement, ready to render first aid.

Mostly, though, he trains with a dozen crew members in a niche service of the maintenance department: testing valves, rolling out silks, and fitting survival gear into the hard-plastic parachute packs or ejection-seat assemblies.

"I get a lot of pride out of it, even if what we do doesn't show a lot. It's pretty challenging work and sets me aside, as there are only two of us out of more than 5,000," he said of the duties that define his rate and rank: petty officer second class, parachute rigger.

A 26-year-old self-described "surfer bum" from San Diego, Endicott chose the search-and-rescue services in a quest for adventure after a series of mundane jobs. He worked in a bakery, paved roads, and sold floor tile and vacuum cleaners before joining the Navy three years ago.

"It's not every day, but there are times when it's pretty exciting," said the bespectacled sailor. "Man-overboards are pretty intense. They always come when you're in your rack. I can sleep through almost everything on the 1MC [shipwide intercom], but I always wake up for the 'Navy Blue' calls and the bells."

Those are codes for fire on the flight deck or a crewmate in trouble, hazards to which he has to respond as a member of the disaster team known as the "flying squad." He's been summoned for at least 15 man-overboard searches, all of which ended successfully, and he's packed dozens of parachutes that no one has yet needed to open.

Packing a chute takes half a day, even longer for those encased in ejection seats on the more sophisticated aircraft, such as the F/A-18C Hornets that are the workhorses of aerial war. Those seats are veritable survival kits, with life rafts, emergency oxygen supplies, high-energy biscuits and even fishing line -- supplies intended to keep a downed pilot alive behind enemy lines.

Each parachute has four colored gores, or sections, that a downed flier can put to use: orange to attract the attention of search-and-rescue aircraft, and green, white and beige for camouflage in different terrains or in snow. Some chutes are equipped with an air grenade that can inflate them enough to cushion the impact of landing even when triggered just 50 feet from the ground.

For ditching in the sea, the rip cord can release the chute to prevent the aviator from being dragged under by the waterlogged cloth's weight.

"I'm lucky because I don't have to feel like I'm endangering anyone's life in Iraq, even though I'm part of the whole thing," said Endicott, who plans to reenlist and hopes to get into an officer-training program. "My role is preservation of life, so I don't have to feel guilty for dropping bombs on people."

The Cop

Scott Leverett's workplace is known as the 72nd Precinct, the Lincoln's cop shop, which comes complete with a steel-mesh window to separate peace officers from perps. His job as a master-at-arms patrolman is to ensure security on the massive ship.

"This is like a little city. We don't have gangs, but we've got a lot of similar problems, like fighting and theft," said the 40-year-old petty officer second class with 12 years in the Navy. "Then we have military laws to enforce on top of that. We get a lot of cases that involve disrespect."

A former chef from Portland, Ore., Leverett said he thrives in a role many here would prefer to avoid. Most of those patrolling the 18-story vessel are on temporary assignment from other departments for six to nine months, giving the military police force the extra muscle needed to maintain shipboard order.

"If my staying out [at sea] another six months means we don't have two more office towers going down, I'm all for it," he said, confident of the connection between his behind-the-scenes job and the broader goal of combating terrorism.

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