For six months, the USS America, its 4,700 crew members and its 70 planes show the American flag in Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq
Although he serves on active duty, Lieutenant Leekey received his commission through the Naval Reserve rather than the Naval Academy or the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. It cost the Navy $800,000 to teach him to fly his Mach 2 fighter, but now it is letting go its active-duty reservists. Cmdr. Steve Collins, Lieutenant Leekey's squadron commander, has orchestrated a letter writing campaign, endorsed by the task force commander, to retain his young officer. Leekey can only fly and hope.
Below decks. For a pilot, getting up in the morning means another day to break the sound barrier. For most of the America's crew, however, especially the 18 year-old enlisted sailors, the shrill whistle of the boatswain's pipe that announces reveille each morning at 6 o'clock ushers in another day of drudgery. Time stands still in the 120-degree heat of the engine rooms. Seaman Ryan Hall sits on a bucket under an air vent for two four-hour shifts a day, struggling to stay awake as he monitors a generator in one of the engineering spaces, where oil-fired boilers make steam to turn the shaft of one of the ship's four 69,000-pound propellers.
The America needs constant attention. Commissioned in 1965, it is showing its age. A month before leaving Norfolk, a senior enlisted crew member complained to his congressman: The ship was operating on only two of its six electric generators, without radar and unable to pump fuel. This would be its third six month cruise in three years, and without the standard 18 months at home for repairs, salt water and full steaming had taken their toll.
Seaman Hall, and the men who spend three months at a stretch cleaning clogged toilets or working mess duty, say the cruise is like the movie Groundhog Day. Each morning begins the same day all over again. A sailor can let a week pass without climbing the steep ladders to the flight deck and squinting at the sun. Sometimes the menu serves as a calendar: Pizza for dinner means it must be Friday.
Crewmen learn to beat the boredom. Petty Officer 1st Class James "Elvis" Alexander doesn't always wait for reveille to get up in the morning; with 20 showers in his 296-man berthing, he sometimes rises at 5 to beat the lines. After working 16 hours in the ship's jet engine shop, Alexander tunes his guitar and props open his songbook. The Memphis native, who grew up 6 miles from Graceland and worked as an Elvis impersonator--he even kept his long sideburns as a Navy recruiter--leads a bluegrass trio with fiddle and banjo.
Most nights they make music on the ship's fantail, surrounded by finicky, foil-wrapped jet engines waiting to be repaired. Here, at the stern, the musicians can look at the ship's wake and see where they've been; in the daytime, when the carrier steams at full power, the wake lingers all the way to the horizon. As shipmates gather, Petty Officer Alexander sings of a journey by train: "Engineer reach up and pull the whistle,/Let me hear that lonesome sound./For it blends with the feeling that's in me,/The one I love has turned me down."