USS Fletcher DD-992 Tiger Cruise
May 28 - June 3, 2004
Pearl Harbor to San Diego
a report by Earl Faubion
It’s hard to know where to start when writing about an experience such as this so I’ll start at the beginning and hope that I can convey a tiny bit how it felt to sail on the USS Fletcher DD-992 from Pearl Harbor to San Diego on what was to be her last cruise. Fletcher left her home port of Pearl Harbor in August 2002 for a scheduled six month deployment in the Middle East fighting the War on Terrorism. I’ll leave it up to others to describe how that and subsequent crews fought the good fight to help keep those of us at home safe. The “Fighting Jack” ended up being gone on a 22 month deployment involving four crews in a program the Navy calls Sea Swap. In addition to Fletcher’s original crew, the crews of the USS Kinkaid, USS Oldendorf and USS Elliot were flown to Australia or Singapore to take over the ship while the previous crew was returned to San Diego to decommission the old ones. And the program worked. But like I say, I’ll let others describe that aspect of the end of Fletcher’s long career I will focus only on this tiger cruise.
This tiger cruise came at the end of her Sea Swap program with Team Elliot on board. Greg Schueller and I are old USS Fletcher DD-445 sailors from the 1960s and in San Diego in August 2002 we represented our ship at a DesRon 21 reunion. It was there we met Commander John Nolan who was then the new CO of the USS Elliot DD-967. We toured his ship and shared a table with him at the reunion dinner, having no idea that he would eventually become the CO of the USS Fletcher DD-992. The end result was that Greg and I were invited to make a planned tiger cruise at the end of May as Commander Nolan’s guests, an offer we readily accepted.
Prior to August 2002 Greg and I had never met although we’d emailed each other a time or two. It was coincidence we lived in the same state, he in Tulsa and I in Oklahoma City. Being the frequent flier that he is, Greg made our travel arrangements. On May 27th our adventure began as we each flew to DFW from our home cities and from there on to Honolulu. At the Honolulu airport USO we linked up with Fletcher’s Petty Officer First Class Davis who drove us in a government van directly to the ship which was tied up next to Merry’s Point Landing adjacent to the DesRon 31 building. DesRon 31 was Fletcher’s squadron when she left Pearl Harbor two years earlier. At the quarterdeck we were met by LTjg Lesley Smith, the bright eyed and effervescent coordinator for Fletcher’s tiger cruise. She quickly showed us to our staterooms and helped us get settled in. As old enlisted men Greg and I were thrilled and somewhat surprised to find ourselves berthing and dining in officer’s country. We were told that a total of 74 tigers were aboard.
At 1400 hours on May 28 Fletcher got underway and made her way out the channel of Pearl Harbor under her own power for what will probably be the last time. On the way out the crew, “Team Elliot”, paid special attention to their former destroyer which had been towed to the inactive ships area near Ford Island and was easily visible as we glided by. Fletcher is due to be towed back to Pearl after decommissioning on October 1, 2004 and will likely end up tied up near Elliot. The view of Diamond Head and the surrounding vista was breathtaking as it has always been. In spite of the gusty trade winds the view was enjoyed by all. Once clear of the harbor entrance Fletcher pointed her bow to the east and began making 20 knots and the crew got a beautiful view of Oahu before we rounded Diamond Head and turned northeast toward California. A couple of hours later to starboard the islands of Molokai and Maui remained in view for a while and even the mountains of the Big Island were visible in the distance.
As Hawaii faded from view a few light rain showers dampened Fletcher’s decks and sent a few tigers scrambling for cover. We began adjusting to a new life for the next six days. Among the first things Greg and I noticed was how easy this Fletcher rode the waves. Former DD-992 crew members had described her as a Cadillac and it was apparent why. She rode the deep blue sea with a grace that was alien to us on the first Fletcher. After a dinner and a shower she gently rocked us to sleep that night after taps sounded at 2200.
At 0600 which was really like 0500 due to a time zone change, the 1MC got our attention as reveille was sounded. Breakfast for the crew. Then a tiger muster and round robin tours of the ship began with the tigers divided into five groups. In the course of the next few days we would have the opportunity to tour every part of the ship except the classified areas. Later that first morning we caught up with a task group of four Japanese Self Defense Force destroyers that had left Pearl a few hours ahead of us the day before. They were also headed to San Diego but at a slower pace. Their commodore granted us permission to come alongside for a photo opportunity. The Japanese ships were immaculately painted and hardly a soul was in sight. One of the group’s helicopters was up preparing to take photos of the group and they graciously allowed us to cruise alongside for a few minutes before breaking away to make our way independently to San Diego. At sunset that evening the crew assembled us tigers on the flight deck from where we observed a wonderful display of fireworks as most of Fletcher’s weapons were fired to the strains of music including the Overture of 1812. Everyone was impressed. Fletcher might be old but she’s certainly still capable of defending herself and her country!
Over the next few days the round robin sessions continued and at night movies were shown on both the screen and the ship’s TV system. On Sunday a “steel beach” cookout was held on the fantail with all the hamburgers, hot dogs, beans, rice, condiments and soft drinks anyone could possibly want. And it did not escape notice that when Commander Nolan arrived, he got in line behind everyone else and did not cut in as would have been his privilege. Greg and I spoke with many crew members from the XO on down to new seamen and without exception all had praise for their captain. I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a captain so loved by his crew as this one, and that’s saying a lot because of the five I served under, all were very good..
As we made our way northeast, first at 20 knots and later at 18 knots, the weather began to cool and the handful of tigers who brought nothing but shorts to wear were soon regretting their decision. We seemed to be eternally heading into the wind so combining that with the ship’s speed made for a somewhat nasty wind chill at times, especially as we approached the coast of California. The seas grew a little nastier too and by the last full day at sea Greg and I got our wish of being able to “walk the bulkheads” a time or two. No, it wasn’t really that bad but we did get to see a few dishes flying off the tables in the wardroom. One thing that surprised me was how well the tigers adapted to the rolling motion of the ship, especially on that last day when we got caught “in the trough” of swells coming in from a storm far off to the north. Many of the tigers had never been to sea on a ship before and most adapted so easily that I was almost disappointed. Sure, a few did get sick but they were a tiny minority and I found myself impressed at how even some people who were older than Greg and I adapted to this alien environment so quickly. Some scampered up and down the ladders like they’d been doing it all their lives. Maybe the selection process weeded out the faint of heart?
Coming into a foggy San Diego on the morning of June 3rd I found myself with a lump in my throat. The ship’s PA was playing music befitting a homecoming and I couldn’t help but be touched by how this very professional crew was about to come home to the open arms of their loved ones and how much they deserved all the kudos and Bravo Zulus in the world for the task they’d just performed for their country. Why heck, I’d only been away from home for a week and I was anxious to get back so I can only imagine how it must have felt for the crew. It brought to mind homecomings on my Fletcher, even though I was single and had no one waiting for me in Hawaii back then they were still very special occasions. Shortly after Fletcher tied up to Pier 7, liberty call was sounded and the crew swarmed ashore. One, the ship’s leading corpsman, proposed to his girl on the pier in front of TV cameras. She said Yes.
There are so many people to thank that I know if I start listing them I’ll leave some out so please forgive me in advance. I will still mention some of them though starting with the main character, Commander John P. Nolan, Fletcher’s CO. Were it not for him this tiger cruise would not have happened. Thank you Commander Nolan, you are indeed deeply appreciated. And thanks to the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander J. L. Jenkins, your warm welcome meant a lot to us.
And a special thanks to the officers in stateroom 2 who put up with me for 7 nights, LCDR Mike Sawin, the “air boss” of the HSL 49 Scorpions, the ship’s air detachment, and to LCDR Bruce Peterson, the Operations Officer. They along with Mike’s father Bruce who was also a tiger were gracious and very accommodating, especially considering the four of us were crammed into a room designed for three.
Also a special thanks to Chief Stark for giving me the courtesy of a personalized tour of sonar even though it meant shutting down the classified equipment so I could get in. And the wardroom mess attendants who put up with several of us tigers who caused them to do double the work they normally would have to do. And to the air crew who seemed to take delight in dragging chains across the flight deck in the middle of the night during flight ops knowing full well officer’s country was located directly beneath them, yeah, even you guys were great. It was obvious you were dragging the chains in a very quiet and orderly manner.
Last but certainly not least is LTJG Lesley Smith, our tireless tiger liaison who went out of her way to ensure that all tigers’ questions were answered. During a GQ drill she performed flawlessly in her primary position as the DCA, a job she obviously truly loves and enjoys. She exemplified the entire crew who to a person seemed to like the jobs they were performing, well, almost all anyway. From Seaman Brown on up to Commander Nolan, this old sailor says, “Bravo Zulu” to you all!
Earl Faubion, June 2004