On my way to visit USS Belleau Wood near Australia, I spent a night in Cairns,
Well-known as an entrance to the Great Barrier Reef, the town seemed to exist
only for tourism and diving.
A Marine Corps helicopter came to the Cairns airport to exchange passengers
and pick up cargo.
Australia's extremely strict environmental laws required the crew to spray
two cans of bug spray inside the helicopter before opening any doors, and then hand the empty cans to the agricultural inspectors
on the ground--even though the CH-46E is open in the rear and on the upper sides.
When I boarded, I pulled on a life vest and cranial helmet before fastening
my seat belt. A crewmember plugged a radio cord into my headset so I could talk to the pilots.
The noise was too great to talk to the other passengers. With the vibrations
and the wind blowing through, our short ride was long enough.
We flew over the Great Barrier Reef on our way to the Belleau Wood, 35 miles
off the east coast of Australia.
USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) is a landing helicopter assault ship, designed to
be both a helicopter carrier and an amphibious dockship.
It was commissioned in 1978, the same year I became a maintenance officer.
It operates five Harrier jump jets and 25 helicopters, as well as carrying
several decks full of trucks, tanks and other wheeled vehicles.
The ship has 900 permanent Navy personnel and 2000 embarked Marines.
Other ships in the amphibious ready group carry the remaining Marines and
equipment of the 31st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit).
The Belleau Wood is named for the World War I battle where Marines suffered
55 percent casualties to acquire a small woodland in France.
The defeated Germans later referred to them as Teufelhunde (devil dogs)
for their fierceness in battle.
The official nickname of LHA-3 is "Devil Dogs," and that is what today's Marines
During my visit, I walked through all the aircraft maintenance spaces on the
ship and talked to Marines and Sailors who worked in them.
I also toured the hospital and engineering spaces. The hospital on this class
of ship is larger than on any other Navy ship except for hospital ships; it has four operating rooms.
The ship is designed so that the Marines' berthing area becomes part of the
hospital after the battalion goes ashore.
This dual-purpose configuration brought home to me the horrors of war, knowing
that all those young men lived with the possibility of getting shot up and coming back as casualties.
The complexity of the engineering spaces amazed me, and I only saw a small
portion of the operation of this steam-powered ship.
In an awe-inspiring balancing act, Sailors monitored temperature, pressure
and quantity gauges for two boilers and a maze of lines carrying steam, hot and cold water and oil.
I admired those individuals working in such adverse conditions of extreme
heat and noise.
Realizing the system was designed to take bomb damage and continue to operate
the ship made it even more overwhelming.
My most memorable moment was watching a Harrier land on the flight deck.
I've seen numerous jets land on aircraft carriers--they come screaming in
from the rear at full speed, land with a thud, and get jerked to a halt when the aircraft tailhook catches the ship's arresting
The short-takeoff-and-landing Harrier also approaches from the rear, but instead
of slamming onto the deck, it stops in the air alongside the ship, then slides over and sets itself down.
Most flight operations take place at night because the aircrews fly with night
This requires the ship to be dark. Marines working on aircraft on the flight
deck were restricted to using flashlights with blue lenses. Those in the hangar bay worked under dim yellow lights high in
What impressed me throughout my visit was how cheerful and dedicated everyone
seemed to be, in spite of cramped and difficult working conditions.
Because the Belleau Wood is forward-deployed, it doesn't have the workup and
deployment cycles of other ships. It is expected always to be ready.
When the Belleau Wood pulled into Gladstone for fuel, I walked off after the
quarantine inspection had been completed.
There was no liberty because the ship was getting underway the next morning
to conduct an exercise.
From my hotel room I could see the silent Belleau Wood in the harbor half
a mile away.
Knowing it contained 3000 people made Saturday evening a rather lonely experience
for me. I can best describe the feeling as that of a child whose friends can't come out to play.
I called the one Lutheran church listed in the telephone book and the minister
answered. He offered to give me a ride to church the next morning.
After the church service, a woman took me to her house, fed me lunch and gave
me a tour of the surrounding countryside before returning me to my hotel.
I flew to Brisbane the next morning for a nine-hour nonstop flight back to