Somewhere on A1A...

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

I was inspired while reading the Right Wing Texan, at Laurence’s suggestion. One line, “Just sitting here (slightly tipsy) in a comfortable old pair of Wranglers and field-broke Lucchese boots listening to the new Springsteen album, drinking a Shiner Bock, and bloggin'. Life is good!” made me think.

Sitting at the computer with my colortini: a Red Stripe, in my baggy shorts and well worn flip-flops, listening to Keb Mo and bloggin’, Yes, Life is good. I imagined sitting on the deck with the Right Wing Texan and a few others and telling stories about our experiences in the Middle East, and decided to blog the story I’d have told him...

I’ve had three experiences as a nameless man being reported on by the national networks. They have all involved the Middle East. The first was an interview at a gas station somewhere on the New York State Thruway during the oil embargo in 1973. I was waiting in a long line to buy gas for my father’s car at the only place open on the west Side of Syracuse. I had driven 20 mins for a chance to buy a partial tank of gas…. $3 worth if memory serves me right. I was proud of that ‘performance’ on Dan Rather’s evening News. I was a star!

The next appearance was a few years later during the Iran-Iraq War. I was a helicopter pilot based in Bahrain, one of four pilots of the 'Desert Duck.' The Duck was assigned as the transportation for the Admiral in residence as the Commander of Middle East Forces. We also hauled the mail and air freight to and from the ships in the Persian Gulf to the airfield in Bahrain. The Duck was well regarded by everyone who knew of it.

As a hauler of people, mail and cargo, we were unarmed. None of the air crew flew with side arms and the aircraft had no armament. We ferried cookies from home and American coffee along with spare parts. We also flew the boss around from ship to ship and between his ashore Headquarters and his Flagship. Often we would fly him out to the flagship in the morning and back home in the evening after a long days work with his afloat staff.

The ships in the the Arabian Sea (Persian Gulf to the Iranians), were monitoring the War. You may remember the Iraqis shooting at oil tankers in the gulf and even hitting the USS Stark... they were our “friends” back then. Merchant ship traffic in the gulf was pretty heavy despite the war. Sheep Ships from New Zealand, (which would toss the dead sheep over the side on their way into port, leaving a trail of bloated, floating sheep for us to follow back to Bahrain) were frequent visitors, as were RO-RO’s of Mercedes and Toyotas, and countless container ships full of Japanese electronics were plying their trade. Except for the occasional oil slick and burning tanker, or listening to the news and reading the papers you’d never know there was a war on. There was, though, small group of vultures who were very much interested.

Always monitoring the VHF shipping radio frequencies was a small group of ocean going tugs, what we called salvage vultures. When a ship was attacked and then called for help, these tugs would race to the area to be the first to offer help and get a line to the distressed vessel. The first tug in assistance had salvage rights claims which could mean millions of dollars to the captain and owners. Imagine 8 or 9 ocean going tugs steaming in slow circles monitoring the radios for signs of distress, and then racing to the area for a chance at a sizeable prize. You understand the vulture reference.

The journalists, covering the war while drinking it up in the bars of Bahrain or in ex-Pat neighborhoods in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, monitored the same frequencies as the vultures and the US Navy. Did you know that a bored sailor can set the news in motion with a radio transmission or two?? But I digress, I’m supposed to be telling you about my second exposure on the National Evening News.

On April 25, 1984 a Panamanian flagged vessel with a Swedish captain, a Philipino crew, owned by a Saudi Oil company left Al Kharg Island in Iran loaded with crude. A couple of hours later the Safina-al Arab was hit on the starboard side at the water line, just below the bridge, by an Iraqi Exocet Missile. The missile tore a basketball court sized hole in the side of the ship and barrels of crude were burned or leaked into the sea. The Captain called for help and the salvage vultures responded.

On the flagship, and in the Admirals ashore HQ, they monitored the situation through most of the night and into the next morning. On his way out to the ship the Admiral wanted to fly over to see what was going on and so we could photograph the damage and try to piece together the picture that was emerging over the VHF radio.

The ship was reportedly still smoking. It was unclear whether the fire was under control or not, although a salvage tug had been fighting the fire. There were no reports of injuries, at least none which required medevac. Radio reports from the Danish tug captain were that he had been threatened by an Iranian gunboat which was still hindering his rescue effort. The Safina Al Arab’s captain also complained about the harassment and wanted his crew to be rescued. A couple of US warships were ordered to the vicinity in case any humanitarian assistance would be needed. It was not the US Navy’s mission to get involved in Admiralty disputes on the high seas and we had witnessed more than one of these competitions between the salvage vessels. But this was a little different because an Iranian gunboat was involved. So, Oceanguy and his crew manned the Desert Duck with the boss aboard and flew to the scene.

The Iranian ‘gunboat’ turned out to be a competing salvage tug that was not equipped to fight a fire. So even though they were first on the scene, they were not the first to render assistance. Apparently one of the crew of about 20 had brandished some sort of pistol while arguing with the Dane from the second-on-the-scene tug saying that he was there first and deserved the rights to salvage. The second-on-the-scene had the fire-fighting equipment and had put the fire out, so the dispute was over who would tow the ship and to where it was going to be towed... Who would get the treasure? The issue was dead as far as we were concerned, and we dropped the Admiral on the Flagship and picked up his Chief of Staff for the return trip to shore. The COS wanted to see the scene too.

Once again we flew to the ship. Neither salvage tug had a line across to tow the tanker. Both were sailing very close to the damaged vessel and were apparently still arguing. The Chief of Staff made a couple of Jokes about the “Rag Heads” on the deck of the Iranian vessel needing a bath, and we flew around the ship a couple of times slowing to a hover to examine the damage before disappearing over the horizon to follow the dead sheep back to Bahrain.

So, how did all of this play on the evening news? Well, I can only report on Peter Jennings’s broadcast, for that is the tape we received about 2 weeks later. When dining on the flagship we had the treat of watching the ABC Evening News just before dinner, almost like home, even if it was two weeks behind. So I got to hear about my heroism on TV, but this time I almost didn’t recognize me.

The “truth” as reported by ABC went something like this: "Today in the Persian Gulf, the Safina Al-Arab was hit by an Iraqi Missile. An Iranian gunboat threatened the survivors and attacked the rescue ship. The tense confrontation was eased when the Iranians were chased away by two US Navy Helicopter gunships.” Me, flying over twice, on a sight-seeing tour in the Desert Duck turned into an heroic act.

I suppose I should have been honored to be so feared that my single, unarmed, mail carrying helo was perceived as a fearsome pair of gunships. I should also be proud of the heroic way we fought off that gunboat….. Except I knew the real story, now you do too.

That event made me ever skeptical of all “world news” reporting. It has made me always look for the untold story. I wish Blogs had existed back then. Even almost 20 years later it feels good to fact check Peter Jennings ass.

Some other time I’ll tell you about my third time in Prime Time.


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