Sunday, February 2, 2003


Airman joined to see the world, he may see war


SAN DIEGO - It's quite a sight from the flight deck of the USS Peleliu, 20 stories above San Diego Bay: The sun sparkling on the blue-green water, the winsome curve of the Silver Strand half a mile in the distance, the rainbow loft of the Coronado Bridge off to the right.

The ocean stretches forever here, all the way to the other edge of the world.

On June 6, Navy airman Bruce Hawk will man the Peleliu's rail in his dress whites. He'll stand precisely three feet from the sailors to his right and left. Some 3,000 men, sailors, pilots and Marines, will circle the ship in that fashion. As the Peleliu sails from its berth at the San Diego Naval Station, beneath the Coronado Bridge and into the Pacific, the men will wave.

Twenty-five days later, they'll be in the waters off Kuwait.

"I didn't think we'd be at war when I signed on,'' Hawk said.

He is 19. He graduated from Loveland High in June 2001, restless, knowing he wasn't ready for college. Bruce Hawk's uncle had served on a submarine. Bruce had always loved the coast. He enlisted in the Navy on Sept. 16, 2001. "When the towers got attacked, people asked me if I still wanted to go. It made me want to go more,'' Hawk said.

He is an Aviation Bosun Handler, an ABH, one of 180 sailors manning the hangar bay, and a flight deck the size of three football fields. Hawk's main job is to rescue pilots if they crash on the flight deck.

The Peleliu is an amphibious assault ship, second in size only to an aircraft carrier. It houses Harrier fighter jets, assault helicopters and 2,000 Marines.

It is the first ship to carry the Rolling Air Frame Missile System, a radar-equipped machine gun that zeroes in on incoming enemy planes and missiles. "If we hear that go off, we're supposed to brace ourselves,'' Hawk said.

The Peleliu has two Close-In Weapon System gun mounts, four 25 mm chain guns and five .50-caliber machine gun mounts. It has four operating rooms, three surgeons and room for 300 patients.

Embedded in its deck is a sprinkler system that goes off automatically during a chemical or biological attack. Foam flushes the deck and whisks the poison out to sea. Among Bruce Hawk's belongings are a gas mask and a full chemical suit. "That scares me, the chemical stuff,'' he said.

It's an edgy celebration in San Diego the week of the Super Bowl. The game is here. The war is coming. It seems as inevitable as the opening kickoff. Merriment mixes with sobriety to make a cocktail of uncertainty.

Two days after the game, the president said in his State of the Union message that Saddam Hussein had run out of chances to avoid war.

It all seems so abstract, this fighting, so distant. Even on the USS Peleliu, where the view is dreamy and 360 degrees, and the banner lashed to the quarterdeck proclaims "Peace Through Power".

"I'm ready to go,'' Hawk said. "It's my purpose. It's what I've trained to do.'' He joined the Navy to see the world and plan his future. Now, he's likely going to war.

I try to recall who I was at 19, and what I wanted to become. I can't remember what concerned me then. It wasn't what concerns me now.

I look at Bruce Hawk, the easy, smiling face of the future and I wonder how I'd have felt at his age, on the deck of a ship, leaving for war. The old men send the young men to fight, and it all seems too easy for them.

Hawk scanned the harbor. "All these piers were covered with ships,'' he said, "not very long ago.'' Thirty ships, he figured. "Now, there's maybe nine.''

The USS Peleliu left last Monday for a week of training off the California coast.

There will be more training, three weeks of it a month in March, April and May. Then Bruce Hawk and 3,000 shipmates will man the rails in their dress whites and leave our country to defend it.

When pride mixes with fear, its face looks like young men, lining a ship's rail as it sails away. It looks like Bruce Hawk.


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