This December ended the 7-month Middle East deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), made up of the USS Essex (LHD2), USS Anchorage (LPD23), and the USS Rushmore (LSD 47). These ships were the temporary home for 4500 marines and sailors and all their weapons, helicopters, and motorized vehicles. Their mission was to be ready and available for anything, project force, but hope for peace in that troubled part of our globe. The ARG is described as a “Swiss Army Knife” with a wide range of capabilities.
When I read my son’s email from the Anchorage, it seemed too good to be true. He knew of my love of warships and the sea; maybe there would even be an opportunity for some pelagic birding. His ship would be completing its long deployment and off-loading the marines and their gear at Camp Pendleton. They would then take family members aboard for the last overnight leg of the voyage to the home base at San Diego. We would be the guests of the U.S. Navy for this “Tiger Cruise” and we would be the tigers. All we had to do was to get to the West Coast on time and climb aboard. What an opportunity. We decided to “just do it”.
That was easier said then done. Nearly 100 tigers waited patiently at Camp Pendleton for the seas and surf to calm. The ships had dodged a major coastal storm to the north and made repairs following an engine room fire on the Anchorage. Despite it all, the ARG had arrived off Pendleton on schedule. Now if the heavy seas would just cooperate.
We waited and waited, but finally the word came to board the LCU. It didn’t seem any calmer to me, but we were all excited to go. As soon as we rounded the breakwater the waves hit us with vengeance, soaking all the people in the bow. Soon, a few tigers were losing their breakfast off the stern rail, but we were getting closer to the Anchorage. I could make out the well-deck, open and welcoming, and our loved-ones waving from the stern.
As we disembarked from the landing craft we passed a long line of marines in combat gear, carrying their heavy packs, patiently waiting to board our same landing LCU to head ashore. It gave me an opportunity to welcome them home and thank them for their service. We tigers finally found our sponsors and loved ones on the flight deck with hugs and kisses all around. The CO, Captain J.J. “Yank” Cummings gave us a warm welcoming speech and invited us to explore the entire ship, ask questions, and take pictures. There was very little of the ship we did not see.
I was assigned a small cabin with two other tigers. Even this officer’s berth was spartan. Our son suggested we skip trying to shower on the rocking ship. Sleeping was difficult until I discovered the straps designed to hold you in the bunk, letting the roll of the ship rock you to sleep.
Oh yeah, what about the pelagic birds? I had done my homework and reacquainted myself with what I might see off southern California’s coast this time of year, but I knew there would be no chumming from the stern of this U.S. naval vessel. Right after early breakfast in the wardroom, I stationed myself on the lee side of the upper deck, in the shelter of the bridge and started birding. Unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds made that a chore; the bridge watch and I were the only ones on deck. My sightings were meagre and nothing unusual, including Western Gulls, Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants, and Brown Pelicans. I think I saw some Surf Scoters also but was not sure.
Rounding Point Loma and entering San Diego harbor on the Anchorage is an experience I will ever remember. First of all, it is just a beautiful city and harbor with clear blue skies and water, seabirds, and pleasure boats. The Cabrillo monument and military cemetery are high on the bluff to port and the Naval Airbase is to starboard. As you cruise under the Coronado Bridge, you see all the other warships lined up and waiting their turn to go to sea.
Secondly, there is sight of the sailors and officers, so young and vital-looking, solemnly manning the rails in their dress uniforms, happy to be home.
Thirdly, you can’t help but have some national pride in the Navy and its dedicated sailors and officers–an impressive force for peace.
And lastly, finally being with my son, reunited and safe after his long service in a dangerous part of the world, was best of all.
As the tugs eased the Anchorage into its slip my wife and I were high on the bridge deck looking down at the welcoming and waving families, many with signs and flowers. There were numerous sailors who had infants waiting whom they had never seen. They were understandably the first ones ashore. One by one everyone disembarked into open arms. I think we were the last to leave.
I know this is a birding and bird photography blog, so forgive me for the lack of bird photos. There were only a few “bird moments” on the cruise, but there were many other “Kodak moments” and memories to share. I’ll return to birding on the next post.