ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATIONIn the hazy, predawn skies over the Persian Gulf, four Tomahawk cruise missiles shot off the port side of the USS Bunker Hilla cruiser in the USS Constellation battle groupas part of the first official strikes in the second gulf war. They were followed 20 minutes later, at 5:35 a.m. Baghdad time, by nine more missiles that flew from the ship accompanied by enlisted sailors' cheers. The cruiser's 13 Tomahawk strikes were part of a six-ship barrage that hammered undisclosed targets in northern Iraq just over an hour after the passing of the 48-hour deadline President Bush had established for Saddam Hussein's surrender.
Rear Adm. Barry Costello, the Constellation's battle group commander, said the Tomahawk strikesfired from the gulf and the Red Sea, from the destroyers Cook and Milius, the cruisers Cowpens and Bunker Hill, and the submarines Cheyenne and Montpelierwere not part of the Pentagon's original air war plan but rather were the result of "actionable intelligence" received by the president. On Wednesday night, the Constellation itself also sent two EZ-6B Prowlers on a mission to support F-117 stealth fighters that struck targets around Baghdad.
Clearly, an air war of a type has begun. Still, Costello noted that the night's operations were not part of the "overall master attack plan," in which the first several days of the air war have been prepared in detail, aligning "specific targets to weapons to delivery systems." That master plan, over a month in the making, will last several days, said Costello: "And then aircraft sorties will be [flown] more in response to what's going on in the ground." Costello declined to specify the kinds of targets struck last night, how many Tomahawk missiles were launched in total, or whether the strikes had sped up the launch of the planned air war.
Constellation warplanes continued flying "below and very close to" the 33rd parallel in support of Operation Southern Watch, patrolling Iraq's no-fly zone, said Costello. A total of 54 Connie sorties flew over southern, western, and central Iraq Wednesday night; responding to earlier incidents of Iraqi fire, 24 of those sorties struck military and communications facilities, as well as air defense sites. Acknowledging that the strikes had "no purpose other than to continue to prep the battlefield for further on-ground strikes," Costello said that "we are in a transition period" between continuing osw [Operation Southern Watch] and committing to all-out war with Iraq.
Constellation planes also ratcheted up the information war, dropping 2.5 million leafletsalmost half the number of leaflets that dropped in the entire five months prioron western and southern Iraq. While some of the dollar-size pamphlets aimed to convince Iraqis to listen to U.S. radio broadcasts and to avoid unleashing chemical and biological weapons, their major focus was to provide Iraqi soldiers with detailed instructions on surrendering to coalition forces. Printed in blue and white and showing pictures of Iraqi tanks with white flags raised, the pamphlet in its final point in a list of several surrender suggestions suggests that the United States itself is still grappling with the challenge of recognizing any acquiescing Iraqi forces from the air. It says: "Wait for further instructions." Radio broadcasts combine U.S. warnings about attacking coalition forces with locally popular music, as well as with western artists like Celine Dion and the Dixie Chicks.
Earlier in the evening, in an address to the crew, Constellation Capt. John Miller had said that "the road home is through Baghdad." So most sailors expressed various levels of relief at the onset of war. "Awesome!" said aviation ordnanceman Rusty Bertram, 20, of Cave Junction, Ore., when told that air strikes over Iraq had begun. Upon hearing the news, Chris Pendley, 23, a plane mechanic from Fort Worth, Texas, rushed to the ship's hangar baywhere over 100 precision-guided bombs, waiting to be loaded onto fighter jets, have recently been stockedto get his picture taken with weapons usually sequestered many decks below, in the ship's magazines. "It just gives me a warm and fuzzy to see all that power," he said of his desire to take a glamour shot with the bombs. He clarified, though, that his warm and fuzzy feeling didn't mean he was anxious for conflict. "War's not one of the best routes to choose, but it has to be done now or later. Might as well do it now."
But war or no war, Constellation is still a fully functioning city of 5,000 sailors, very few of whom have the luxury of watching tv in the middle of a shift. As the missiles and bombs fell, as the president spoke, as the world waited for the onset of a divisive war, Mykol Fischer, 21, the ship's baker, baked. "It's my job," he said of the cinnamon rolls he was concocting in the midst of an unfolding crisis. "This is how I support this ship." Sailors in hallways polished steel; officers with dirty laundry rushed through passageways with bags of detergent and dirty clothes. So many other sailors went about everyday business, in fact, that you couldn't tell that a war had started. Three sailors stuck sweeping floors on the ship's sixth deck, far above the hustle of the lower floors, stopped a visitor at 7 a.m.almost a full hour after strikes had begunto ask, "Excuse me, did they declare war yet?" And at a corner table in the enlisted sailors' mess hall, Josh Hogancamp, a 22-year-old hydraulic mechanic from Phoenix, sold bingo cards for $2 apiece. The pot is $16,881.75; the game is scheduled for this Sunday. Asked whether bingo would continue even in the middle of war, Hogancamp answered, "Bingo will keep going till we hit home."