ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATIONWarplanes aren't the only things that fly on this cavernous aircraft carrier, a floating city of more than 5,000 sailors and marines. Rumors fly, too.
"Scud missiles are flying at the boat" is one, says Dusty Russell , 23, an aviation electrician from Longview, Texas, twirling a soapy, stringy mop above the red tiles outside a mess hall galley. Petty officer 3rd class Steve Haliday, 21, of Boston, just out of an exam that could advance him to a higher rank, offers another: "Osama bin Laden's been hung by his followers." One more, Russell's favorite: "There's a hole in the boat, and they're patching it up with duct tape and bubble gum."
While Constellation's officers and pilots plan and wage a real, if initially helter-skelter, war on Iraq, such are the rumors circulating among the ship's enlisted crew. Often assigned jobssweeping or dishwashing, sayfar from information hubs like the control room and flight deck, sailors concoct fantastic theories from trickle-down tidbits of information. "The lower you are, the less you hear," says Haliday. "And it's like that telephone gameby the time it gets to us, it's totally wrong."
Those further up Constellation's chain of command say they see things quite clearlyand positivelydespite a string of last-minute changes to the Pentagon's much-reported "shock and awe" campaign. "We have had an incredible 24 hours of success," says Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation's battle group, of last night's naval actions, "unlike anything I've experienced in my career."
U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force strikes pounded Baghdad and continued preparing the battlefield below the 33rd parallel; Connie's warplanes flew 50 strike sorties around Basra, dropping laser- and precision-guided weapons on communications sites and Iraqi ground forces. And Tomahawk missilesmore, Costello says, than were launched on the first night of strikes, though he declined to provide numbersflew to Baghdad from eight U.S. and British destroyers and submarines. The shipsU.S. destroyers Arleigh Burke and John S. McCain, U.S. submarines Augusta, Key West, Providence, and Columbia, and British subs Turbulent and Splendidfired from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Still, echoing President Bush's warning about a longer-than-expected conflict, Costello said, "We do not have hubris" regarding the difficulty of the road ahead. "There will be dangers... and we will be vigilant."
Vigilance is starting to look like flexibility, as naval air forces incorporate last-minute changes into the months-planned "shock and awe" tactic of intensive bombing. Some of Constellation's EA-6B Prowler pilots called unexpectedly into the first night's strikes, for instance, say that though targeting data was accurate and the flights themselves fine, they were "freaked out" at the rush and surprise. The president's first-night intelligence, coupled with as many as 30 burning oil wells in the south of Iraq and Iraqi missile attacks on Kuwait, have made the opening air plan "more accelerated than originally planned," acknowledged Costello.
In fact, rather than evolving in its neatly planned sequenceTomahawks were supposed to launch first, followed by a torrent of airstrikes that would clear the way for ground forces"shock and awe" seems to be becoming a much more reactive and malleable plan. "The whole air campaign will continue to evolve based on the situation on the ground," says Costello.
While Constellation planes are still flying mostly in the southern no-fly zone, the ship seems to be gearing up for a major onslaught. Scores of bombs and missilesfrom sleek, needle-nosed Joint Stand-Off Weapons to smaller, 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Missilesare stashed behind bright-yellow "caution" tape in nearly every available space in the ship's cavernous hangar bay. Ship's captain John Miller tonight asked his crew to be sure to "take care of yourselves and your shipmates," noting that work hours are likely to get longer. "This is not a marathon, and it is not a 100-yard dash," he said of any upcoming conflict. "Everyone needs to pace themselves."
The tension of the unknown is getting to some sailors. Thoughto a personthey express overwhelming confidence in their training, colleagues, and equipment, "we're all on pins and needles," says Haliday of the aura of waiting that still pervades the ship. Noel Meza, 20, a firefighter from Los Angeles whose on-board job is to anticipate catastrophe, was on the first hour of a 12-hour shift on the hangar bay, watching a bevy of bombs to be sure stray heat didn't start them cooking. He says the tension he's been feeling for months hasn't abated. "I sleep not more than 6 inches from my gas mask at all times."