Northern Persian Gulf
1220 Hours, February 2nd 1991
The smoke from a thousand Kuwaiti oil well fires blotted out the Arabian sun. The air was thick with sticky black soot that covered everything, including the sea, which added to the bleak atmosphere. It was dark enough that ships were running their night-lights for safety.
Even with these substandard conditions, it was a normal working day. Normal for the American contingent of naval forces sent to clear the minefields and restore the shipping lanes, while the ground forces prepared to drive the Iraqi invaders back to Baghdad.
With the acrid smoke blocking the sun, the temperature had fallen to an uncomfortable fifty-eight degrees, not exactly the searing heat expected by the team of U.S. Navy divers busily preparing for another excursion to dispose of the lethal trash deposited by the Iraqis. In preparation for his dive, Chief Warrant Officer Mack Turner had completed his dress out procedures and was receiving his last brief before going below. With the soot and oil slick cleared away for his entry, his teammates quietly lowered him into the cool water. Turner—‘Gunner,’ as his men properly referred to him—finished the required surface checks on his diving rig prior to submerging. The rig was the latest technology available to military divers. It was a computer monitored, closed circuit, mixed gas, nonmagnetic apparatus known as the Mark 16, used exclusively by the U.S. Navy’s elite corps of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians assigned to the Mine Countermeasures mission. Not even the SEALs had this rig. Though they would argue that they had something similar, it was universally agreed that theirs was not nearly as good.
The Mark 16 was capable of depths to 300 feet and durations up to six hours. Two qualities set this rig apart from the rest: its silence and nonmagnetic signature. This enabled a disciplined diver to conduct reconnaissance missions on sensitive influence ordnance, such as sea mines like the one being disposed of now.
“Gunner, do you have a solid green?” Boatswain Mate First-class Pete Thompson, the current Diving Supervisor, asked. It meant for the diver to check the Primary Display, a small device attached to the diver’s facemask that indicated the condition of the rig. A green light meant it was operating within parameters.
Thumbs up was the response from Mack.
“OK, remember to check your depth and bottom time. You’re on a one-twenty for fifteen, no-D table, so push it and you’ll swing,” Pete said, implying that Mack would have to be subjected to a decompression stop if he exceeded the imposed depth limits of one hundred twenty feet for fifteen minutes. It was not normally an unpleasant ordeal. It meant remaining in the water at a predetermined depth suspended on a graduated line. This helped to ensure the diver remained at the prescribed depth for the specified time prior to ascending to the surface; but decompressing in the water in a minefield was not a normal situation.
The universal middle finger sign was Mack’s response.
“Ha ha, very funny. Just remember who controls the fuze igniters,” Pete said with a smile.
Another universal sign followed; index finger to thumb, emphatically.
“OK, that’s better. Now, here’s the charge,” Pete said as another team member passed a ten-pound explosive charge of C-4 attached to 250 feet of detonating cord over the side to Mack.
“And don’t forget the sonar.”
Once again, a team member passed an item to the diver. It was a small hand-held sonar device used by divers for locating objects on the ocean’s floor.
Mack took the sonar, plugged it into the headset he was wearing, and turned it on while pointing it down toward the bottom. The familiar whish, whish sound told him it was operational so he turned it off and prepared for his descent.
“All right, Gunner, the buoy is directly behind you. See if you can hurry a little too…it’s cold.” Pete looked away to where the orange marker buoy was floating. “As soon as you are ready, leave the sur…”
But Mack was already gone, the only evidence of his presence was the revolving det-cord float as it slowly payed out the one-quarter inch diameter green-plastic cord as he descended.
“Shit, he always pulls that stunt and makes me start my watches late.” Pete shook his head, smiled and started the twin stopwatches that would time the dive.
Mack chuckled to himself as he began his descent. He enjoyed messing with these guys. It helped to develop the sense of camaraderie found on EOD teams. Dangerous situations demanded a trust. That trust bonded men together forever. When your life depended on your teammate, you grew close to him. He knew he could trust Pete. Pete was a good man and would make a capable officer one day. Trust made for some fun times, and the fun times was just one of the many things he would miss after he retired next month.
Retirement, he was not looking forward to the idea of being a civilian after all this time. It could not be half the fun, or match the excitement of EOD work. After all, where else could a person jump out of airplanes, dive the most exotic locations using the best equipment available, and blow stuff up with powerful explosives all in the same day, and get paid to do it? There was no way that civilian life could ever compare to this.
Thomas Macaulay Turner looked around at the azure sea and smiled around the hard-rubber mouthpiece held firmly between his teeth. If only his childhood friends could see him now. Wasn’t he the one who was afraid of the water when he was a kid? He was always the perfect target for pranks during summer outings at the pool or the lake. Just grab Tommy and watch the water turn brown; oh, what fun. A driving force behind his decision to go EOD was his fear of water. He decided there was no better way to overcome fear than to face it head on (this approach worked for parachuting as well). He found it difficult at first to get through the weeks of training because it was designed specifically to exploit such fears. It separated those who would not make it from those that could, but only after facing and defeating their demons.
Mack remembered the day his demon died. It was during a pool harassment session (better known as problem solving or confidence building). Harassment, as far as navy diving instructors were concerned, was a necessary evil that built character and instilled confidence in the student, so that in real world situations he would be better able to survive.
These harassment episodes were always conducted in the pool for a controlled environment. The students paired up with a buddy and began swimming together on the bottom of the pool while in SCUBA gear. When the pair was comfortable and unaware, an instructor would descend upon them and try to pull the divers apart while disengaging one from his facemask and regulator. The lesson was for the pair to stay together and share air until the victim reclaimed his equipment. This taught a diver to relax and maintain his wits about him while all hell was breaking loose around him; and to trust his buddy not to let him drown. To panic and bolt to the surface was the second most unforgivable sin, next only to becoming separated from your buddy; that sin was advertised by the offenders wearing a length of five-inch hawser looped over each buddy’s head and shoulders. Like the ancient mariner’s albatross or Hester Prynne’sscarlet letter, it too proclaimed that the pair had committed the worst offense, in this case, abandoning a swim partner.
In retrospect, the worst part of the whole ordeal was the worrying he put himself through prior to his turn in the water. Fortunately, he had a seasoned navy diver for a swim buddy, Builder Second-class Scott Henderson, a Sea Bee from an Underwater Construction Team. That fact allowed him to relax a little because he already trusted Scott not to let him die. He remembered breathing in deep controlled breaths in order not to be without air when the instructor hit. It didn’t help, though, because the instructor had been watching his rhythm and simply timed his attack. When it came, it was rough. The instructor forced his mask down over his mouthpiece and around his neck. This made it difficult to recuperate because the mouthpiece was pulled around, then slipped in between the tank manifold and down under the harness holding the tanks to his back. On top of this, the attacker had turned off the air supply and loosened the regulator. He had to remove his tanks in order to correct the problems.
Fortunately, through all of this, Scott never relaxed his grip. His right arm remained locked through the tank straps and his legs were scissored around Mack’s waist. They stayed together. Once the instructor had finished his deed and left, Scott came to the rescue with a refreshing gulp of air from his own regulator and Mack began putting himself back together. With the first attack behind him, Mack began to relax. The subsequent attacks didn’t seem to be any worse. Whether they were or not was not important; what was important was that he was becoming confident in his abilities underwater. The fear that paralyzed him for all of his life was falling away, replaced by the reality of his own strength and assuredness. Never again would he be captive to fear. He learned the most valuable lesson of his life, which was, if you believed in yourself you could not fail. In addition, he coined a personal catch phrase, one that would follow him throughout his life: “Your only limitation is motivation.”
These thoughts made Mack smile again as he continued his descent to the bottom. Mid-way to the bottom he stopped and observed an interesting phenomenon; a distinct layer in the water column. Mack knew about thermal climes—zones of water with different temperatures, but he had not observed one that had a visual appearance before. Above the seventy-foot depth the water was crystal clear, but there was a visible barrier below that. He lowered his head below the silt layer and felt the water cool immediately. The visibility dropped from near infinity to less than ten feet. Mack rose back into the warmer water and the visibility improved. Ain’t nature amazing, he thought. He looked around one last time, checked his watch and then dropped below the silt line into the colder water and continued his descent.
As he descended, Mack took in the sounds around him; and, there were a lot of varying sounds here, from the high-pitched whine of the small boat’s propeller, to the clicks and grunts of the many varieties of fish indigenous to the Persian Gulf.
There was another reason Mack enjoyed the Mark 16. Because it generated very little noise, the fish were not immediately scared away; he was one of them as far as they were concerned. Now, in fact, he was being used as a taxi by a lazy remora, which had attached itself to Mack’s leg during the transition through the thermal clime, and was enjoying a free ride to the bottom. Mack brushed at it with his right hand and it departed abruptly, remaining close enough to catch another ride should the chance afford itself. Mack chuckled at the unsightly fish and continued his headlong descent.
Following the yellow buoy line, Mack noted that he was approaching the bottom. The line was beginning to bend away from him toward the small danforth anchor attached at the end. He could see the vague shapes of the sand mounds and sparse sea grass interspersed with bits of debris from past travelers. Mack halted his descent just above the bottom so he would not disturb the silt layer that covered the bottom; this helped ensure that his limited visibility would not drop to nil. That normally did not matter to him; zero visibility was preferable to him in most cases because too much visibility tended to distract him while he was working. However, here in a minefield, he preferred about five to ten feet of warning before he encountered his quarry.
The mission was to dispose of the largest of the Iraqi mines (actually, it was an older Soviet mine), a three-thousand pound killer labeled UDM. The problem with mines was that this type could possibly see him before he saw it. This mine ‘woke up’ with an acoustic signature and fired after it received the appropriate magnetic signal. Mack did not intend to give it either.
His depth gauge showed 116 when he reached the small anchor firmly wedged in the sand and silt. Gently easing himself into a kneeling position, he turned the sonar on and began searching for a target. Holding the sonar out in front of himself at arms length, he pivoted to the right in a slow arc. The signal in his headset was telling him that nothing was there, so he continued turning to the right. Suddenly he heard bing, bing, bing. Gotcha, thought Mack. The strong metallic return in his headset told him there was a solid metal object about twenty yards away.
Mack arranged his gear so he could swim with the sonar on and carry the explosive charge without getting it tangled in the descent line. With that accomplished, he slowly started swimming in the direction of the target. The return signal began dropping in pitch, as he got closer. What started as a bing sound now changed to a bang. The bang decreased in pitch as he drew closer and now was more like booo, booo. Getting really close, now, Mack noted and decreased his forward speed to allow his eyes to gather in the light. There, just coming into view, a dark shape on the bottom. Bingo! Mack secured the sonar and began creeping up to the shape very carefully. It was still in its shipping crate and on the launching dolly as well, deceptive ploy by the Iraqis to throw off the minesweeper sonar.
As Mack came within six feet of the mine, a large shadow rushed toward him. A one hundred pound pissed off grouper intent upon sending him away from its home swam directly toward Mack’s face. Sheeeiit! Mack cursed as he dodged the charge of the giant fish. It stopped as abruptly as it attacked and held its ground.
On your way, fish, Mack said silently. He turned to challenge the fish and it disappeared quickly with a swish of it massive tail. With the mine’s guardian temporarily displaced, Mack got on with his inspection. Looking at the dive timer on his wrist, he saw that eight minutes had passed since he left the surface. That meant he had to finish in less than seven minutes and leave the bottom.
Looking at the crate that held the mine, Mack decided to attach the charge to the crossbeam near the hydrostatic arming switch. That location would give him a stable vantage point from which to detonate it if he tied it off securely, which he would. It would be embarrassing if the explosive charge came loose before they could actuate it. However, since they were not concerned about recovering this one for intelligence purposes, they could just blow it up and gather supper afterward. A fifteen hundred-pound underwater detonation would provide a good catch of red snapper and other delicacies for them to feast on tonight. Mack prepared the rectangular package for attachment and moved in. The moment he touched the mine case, it detonated!
On the other hand, maybe it didn’t!
It was with the absolute limit of his self-control that Mack contained his panic. He didn’t move, except to breathe. He was still alive. The explosion wasn’t him. He closed his eyes and regained his composure after a few slow deep breaths. Quickly, he ran through the possibilities for the unexpected explosions. It had to be another team working in the adjacent minefield. They must’ve either been really close or it had been a large detonation; he had by god felt it. Sound sure does travel down here, he reminded himself.
He looked at his timer again and noticed that thirteen minutes had passed. He would have to hurry if he was going to make it on time. He tied off the explosive charge at two points on the mine crate. After a thorough last check of the attaching point, the charge, and the det-cord, he left the bottom. He looked back as he swam away and noticed the grouper returning. OK, fish, it’s all yours. He saluted as he left.
Mack followed the det-cord back up toward the surface to ensure it wasn’t tangled or twisted. No point endangering your life on a mine only to discover later that the det-cord failed because you didn’t check for kinks or loops in its length, he told himself, so he checked it on the way up to make sure. As he passed through forty feet, he looked up and saw what he was afraid of, not a twist in the det-cord, but the EBS. The Emergency Breathing System was a special system used during emergencies or an out of the ordinary diving situation, such as an unscheduled decompression dive. Mack fit the latter category. Suspended near the twenty-foot depth was a small, weighted slate for him to write his maximum depth and bottom time on so Pete could calculate the required decompression time.
Oh well, he thought, at least the water was comfortable. He recalled the last time he had to do in-water decompression. It was in Norway during the NATO mine exercise; the water in the fjord had been miserably cold. It seemed he was always pushing the envelope when it came to the dive tables. It guaranteed him a good-natured ribbing from the team, but it kept them on their toes. He considered it worth the trouble.
He looked to make sure the det-cord was safely on the surface before he made his way to the EBS and the slate. Written in black grease pencil was the expected admonition: “Told ya. Now you’re gonna swing.” He took the pencil and looked at his timer. It read 119:17, oops, got me for two minutes, thought Mack. He wrote his depth and bottom time on the slate then added, “I don’t rush sex or a good dive.” He tugged on the line and they pulled it up.
In a moment, the slate returned with his penance, 10 for 10. Ten minutes at ten feet, well, that’s not bad, admitted Mack, I’ll just hang around here and watch the fish. Pete had another team member haul up on Mack’s tending line until it showed the diver at the ten-foot stop.
Even in the relatively warm water, it was a long ten minutes. During that time scores of jellyfish floating by in the current, a couple of curious remoras, one timid hammerhead shark, and a small sea snake accosted him. When his decompression was finished, they hoisted him back to the surface, helped out of his gear and assisted into the small inflatable boat.
As salt water dripped off his nose, he nodded to his team and said, “Go!” With that word, he authorized the next phase to commence.
Torpedoman’s Mate Second-class Anders was responsible for the firing circuit that consisted of ten minutes of time fuze connected to two non-electric blasting caps. This assembly was mounted on a flotation board to keep everything as dry as possible once it was mated to the priming loop of the det-cord floating on the surface nearby.
Boatswain’s Mate Third-class Rollins was the coxswain. He had to ensure the boat didn’t run over the bubble-wrap float or get the prop tangled in the det-cord while Anders made the connection.
The standby diver, Signalman Third-class Danvers, was down dressing from his gear in preparation to assist Anders with the blasting caps.
The connection between the caps and the priming loop of the det-cord would be by electrician’s tape. It was not the most reliable method, but a good back up when the man responsible for bringing the demolition equipment forgot the quick connects—commonly referred to as ‘Blue Devils.’ Anders was paying for his oversight today.
Pete was keeping an eye on Mack while the rest went about their duties. They knew what to do. After working together for the last year and a half, six months of that time over here “in the shit” as Danvers had succinctly put it after and extraordinarily busy day, Pete didn’t have to tell them anything about this phase of the job. This was the fun part, and each man, including Mack, enjoyed watching the fruits of his labor.
“So,” Pete said to Mack. “You just had to try me.”
“Well you know the only way to get better is to test yourself every day, I always say.”
“Thanks, Gunner, but in the future I’d prefer to decide when I need testing; if it’s all the same to you, of course.”
“Well, Pete, that’s just it; it’s not up to you.” Mack said flatly. “You’re not the one who would have to write a letter to your momma saying, ‘Sorry, Mrs. Thompson, but your son got stupid today and killed himself.’ When you are in command you can decide on the training schedule for this team, but until then I want to sleep at night knowing I’ve done my best to make sure we all go home alive. OK with you, BM1?”
“Roger that, Gunner,” Pete replied, somewhat chagrined.
“Right…now, enough of the father-son shit; let’s catch some fish. I’m hungry.”
“Just standby for three more minutes until you are clean, then we will play.”
Mack understood; if there is a chance for arteriole gas embolism or other serious decompression sickness, the symptoms will usually show within the first ten minutes following a dive—especially an unplanned decompression dive. In fact, the presence of any symptom within the first ten minutes is suspect. So, during those minutes, the diver is considered ‘dirty.’
After he received the all clear from Pete, Mack helped in arranging the gear so there would be more room to move about in the small boat. Then he retrieved two important items from the waterproof compartment, the hand-held radio and his favorite cigar. He stuck the chewed end of his stogie into the corner of his mouth; with the radio, he called the minesweeper they were temporarily attached to during this clearance operation.
He checked to make sure it was on, keyed the mike and said, “Leader, Det Eight, over.”
“Roger, Det Eight, this is Leader. Go ahead, over,” came the reply. The USS Leader, MSO 549, had continued its hunting operations about twenty-five hundred meters down range after dropping Mack’s team off earlier this morning. Mack had to let them know that he was commencing disposal operations so the MSO could take precautions against any damage. In the past, ships received damage from being too close to the detonation site; now, they were taking no chances.
“Leader, Det Eight. I intend to go hot in five mikes, do you copy?”
“Det Eight, Leader. Roger, understand hot in five mikes. Have fun! Leader out.”
“OK, Anders, hook up.” Pete nodded toward Anders, authorizing him to make the connection.
Rollins eased the boat closer to the bubble-wrap float by slightly increasing the throttle on the modified 25-hp outboard. The smooth rubber hull glided silently through the water and stopped within reach of the float.
“Good job, Rollie,” said Mack. “All right, boys, make it happen; the first time.”
Danvers grabbed the float and pulled it into the boat so Anders could make the connection safely and with more control. With precut tape strips, he joined the two caps to the cord and when finished looked back to Mack for the go-ahead to pull the fuze lighters.
“Do it!” Mack ordered.
“Fire in the hole!” Anders yelled, pulled the pins on both lighters, noted the results and added, “I’ve got smoke on two!” Satisfied that they were burning properly, he placed the whole assembly back into the water and gently pushed it away. “Get us out of here, Rollie!”
Rollins reversed the direction of the boat smoothly and headed them away to the predetermined observation point.
Mack announced on the radio to all in the area, “This is EOD Eight. We have one hot on the surface, detonation in one zero mikes. I say again, detonation in one zero mikes, over.”
When they reached the safe area, Mack ordered the motor shut down. The sea was calm and quiet as they waited. Then he recalled the incident at the mine. “Say, Pete, while I was on the bottom, did you happen to see or hear anything out of the ordinary? Like an explosion?”
Pete looked at his boss to see if he was being set up, noted the serious expression and said, “No, Gunner, nothing out of the ordinary. And the only thing resembling an explosion was Danvers farting.” He finished with a laugh and asked, “Why?”
“Because, I heard a big one on the bottom and wondered if Leader had done our job for us. It would’ve been a bit of a bitch motoring all the way back to Celito in this,” he patted the rubber pontoon of their seven-man boat, “especially without our GPS.” Mack smiled at the thought; then with a look at his watch changed the subject to the one at hand. “Well, this is the last hurrah for Det Eight, so let’s hope it’s a good one; cameras ready, one minute to go.”
As the countdown continued, Danvers said a little prayer that his calculations on the time fuze were correct; if the shot was off more than ten seconds, he would owe a case of beer to the team. He crossed his fingers and watched the buoy in the distance.
Pete checked the time remaining on the stopwatch. He began the countdown at ten, but only needed to reach four.
During a high explosion, things happen faster than the senses can sort out. First, the assembled team saw a brief white light where the time fuze had been burning. Then almost simultaneously, the water transmitted the shock of the detonating cord. They saw the water jump from the shock wave traveling at nearly twenty-six thousand feet per second.
There was no discernable difference between when the ten-pound charge attached to the mine detonated, and when the mine let go with a fifteen hundred-pound contribution of RDX. Through the floorboards of the boat, it felt as if someone had hit their feet with a hammer. Small fish near the surface, caught by the shock wave, appeared to jump clear of the water as if trying to escape. It was only an illusion though, as they were already dying from the effects of the massive over-pressure generated below. The rapidly expanding gas bubble displaced the water around it, and the sea began to swell above it. As the bubble neared the surface, the mass of water above it lessened and it was blasted into the sky with hundreds of pounds of mud, water and debris thrown up from the bottom. It created an impressive plume seventy feet high and nearly a hundred feet across.
When the sea began to return to its previous calm state, Mack instructed Rollins to start up and motor over to the sight to retrieve the marker buoy as well as any fish worth eating.
“Hoo yah, sir!” was the enthusiastic reply.
“Hoo fucking yah!” Danvers corrected.
“No doubt about it, Gunner,” added Pete. “That was one helluva good finish to a very productive deployment.”
Mack had to agree. He had seen his men through nearly six months of danger; and to date, thirty-nine potentially lethal mines had been disposed of successfully. That included the first exploitation of an influence mine, a UDM like this one, two months earlier. His team had neutralized and raised it off the bottom before towing it nearly forty miles to a small island for disassembly. It was later packaged and shipped back to the states for the intel weenies to pour over. Thirty-nine mines. He remembered each one like it was the first; but the team’s first one…ah, that was special.
Their first one was a simple contact mine, a floater called a LUGM-145, spotted by shipboard personnel on the Admiral’s flagship. He could not have planned that one better if he had tried. Pete got the honor of the first mine with his solo disposal of it right in front of the command staff itself. The hero of the day jumped into the water armed with a two-pound charge, complete with firing device, swam over to let the helo pick him up with a rope ladder, and flew off to the mine a few hundred yards away. Six hundred pairs of eyes, aided by binoculars, watched as he dropped into the water next to the four hundred-pound killer and proceeded to tie the charge to the lower hemisphere, which contained the explosive filler. Once it was secured, he gave a signal to the helo, pulled the pins, then swam back to be picked up and returned to the ship. Five minutes later, the audience assembled on the flight deck, got quite a show. A wet, smoky black geyser three hundred feet high accompanied by the shock and moments later the sound of the blast rewarded all the focused attention. The sound of camera shutters clicking lasted a full two seconds. This was followed by a resounding applause from the observers. It was a good day for Det Eight and a good omen for the future. Today’s successful operation was the icing on a very tasty cake.
“It’s Miller time, gentlemen!” a very proud Gunner Mack Turner exclaimed.
“Gentlemen?” was the response from Rollins, “Who died and made us gentlemen?”
“My mistake,” Mack corrected, “It’s Miller Time, dickheads!”
“Hoo fucking yah to that, too!” Danvers cried again.
Yes, Mack thought, I am surely going to miss all of this.
After high fives all around, they got down to the business of cleaning up to return to the MSO.
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