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Naval Institute: Iraq After Saddam

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    An Interview with Captain Terry McKnight, U.S. Navy

    Interview By Scott E. Belliveau

    The commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), currently on station in the Persian Gulf, answered questions on 13 April 2003 from Scott E. Belliveau, representing the U.S. Naval Institute. Mr. Belliveau is the director of communications for the Virginia Military Institute Foundation, former associate editor of the Naval Institute's Proceedings and Naval History magazines, and former acquisitions editor for the Naval Institute Press.

    Belliveau: I know you're home-ported in Norfolk, Virginia. What unit is the Kearsarge part of and what other ships are in it? What Marine units were embarked with the amphibious group and what Marine units were on the Kearsarge?

    Captain McKnight: The USS Kearsarge deployed as the Flagship for Commander, Amphibious Task Force East (ATFE), a seven-ship task force. The seven ships joined to carry the Marines from the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2 MEB) from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The composition of a MEB is different from that of an amphibious ready group in that the number of ships is seven versus three and the number of embarked Marines exceeded 7,000 versus the approximately 2,500 of an amphibious ready group. The ships that sailed with the Kearsarge included the USS Bataan (LHD-5), Saipan (LHA-2), Ponce (LPD-15), Gunston Hall (LSD-44), Ashland (LSD-48), and Portland (LSD-37). The seven ships were all from Norfolk Naval Station and Little Creek Amphibious Base. Amphibious Task Force East was commanded by Rear Admiral Michael Nowakowski, Commander, Amphibious Group 2, embarked on board the Kearsarge. Admiral Nowakowski dubbed the ships the "Magnificent Seven" because of the flexibility and adaptability demonstrated in deploying on short notice—some ships more than a year earlier than scheduled.

    Once the ships entered the Arabian Gulf, they were assigned to Commander, Task Force 51, led by Rear Admiral W. Clyde Marsh, Commander, Amphibious Group 3, the senior amphibious commander in theater. The designation ATFE was dropped and all amphibious ships became part of a single team. On 24 February, Admiral Nowakowski departed the Kearsarge and returned to Norfolk to assume his duties as Commander, Amphibious Group 2.

    One other key element is the name of the operation. When the Kearsarge deployed, the name of the operation was Enduring Freedom. The name was changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom on 20 March upon the commencement of hostilities.


    A landing craft-air cushion vehicle from Assault Craft Unit Four transports Marine assault vehicles to the USS Kearsarge, deployed to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (U.S. NAVY, ANGEL ROMAN-OTERO).

    Belliveau: When did the Kearsarge leave Norfolk, embark its assigned Marine units, and arrive on station? What training was done on the trip across the Atlantic?

    Captain McKnight: The Kearsarge and the six other ships of ATFE departed on 12 January 2003. On the morning of 13 January, all seven ships were on station in Onslow Bay, off the coast of Camp Lejeune, and commenced the onload of the 2 MEB. While originally slated to be a three-day onload, bad weather delayed the ships' journey east until 17 January. Nowakowski embarked aboard the Kearsarge on 15 January.

    During the time off the North Carolina coast and during the trip across the Atlantic, myriad training was conducted for both the sailors and Marines. For a large percentage of the sailors, this is their first deployment; the average age of the crew is about 23. The focus for the first month of deployment was on training the basics of damage control, fire fighting, chemical and biological warfare defense, ship's systems, etcetera. For the Marines, the pilots required hundreds of training flights to gain and maintain their qualifications.

    Belliveau: A friend who saw amphibious ships leave San Diego told me that after seeing that sight that he had no doubt that the nation was going to war. What were your thoughts when you received your final sailing orders?

    Captain McKnight: I think all of us understood, perhaps as early as last November, that war was a possibility. As we entered the holiday period, I and all my leadership discussed all the possibilities about an early deployment and made as many preparations as possible without trying to communicate a rock-solid certainty. We didn't receive the order to deploy until 9 January. With 72 hours notice, the crew did what they needed to do. They made some immediate decisions about balancing their precious time with their families against the need to prepare their people and departments for a surge deployment. I was most pleased that on the morning of 12 January when we sailed, not one sailor chose to not show up for the deployment. That is a true testament to the commitment and dedication of this crew.

    Personally, the order to deploy came as no real surprise. All the news indicated the government of Iraq was not going to comply with the U.N. resolutions, and conflict looked probable. On 19 July 2002 I took command of the Kearsarge, which, according to the original ship's schedule, was not scheduled to make an extended deployment. To have the opportunity to command a ship in combat is a commanding officer's dream come true. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. No one wants war, but if war is to happen, no military person wants to watch it from the sideline. The Kearsarge is in the war and performing superbly.

    Belliveau: What was the atmosphere like on the Kearsarge when she initially sailed? How did the atmosphere on the ship change as you came closer to the Persian Gulf?

    Captain McKnight: If there is one thing I have learned in 25 years in the Navy, sailors and their families are resilient. Although the departure from the naval station was somber, the crew quickly focused their energy on the task at hand. The crew knew that embarking the Marines was going to be a lot of hard work. There was no time for anyone to feel sorry for himself or herself and contemplate why we had to leave so early. I was amazed at how energetic everyone was. I truly believe the majority of the crew felt excited about the opportunity to help liberate Iraq.

    As the ship came into the Central Command area of responsibility (the Arabian Gulf), the only thing that changed for the crew was their alertness. No longer was the threat somewhere else; it was all around us. Vigilance is something every sailor on board the Kearsarge understands. From the moment we entered the Gulf, watch standers understood they were the ship's defense mechanism. I'm ultimately proud of the way the crew raised their awareness of their surroundings to a way that ensured the Kearsarge remained safe.

    Belliveau: When did you receive word that landing operations would be conducted? Please give us an idea of what that operation involved. For example, how many Marines were moved ashore? How much equipment? By what means did they move? Where did the Marines land? Were their landings in any way contested?

    Captain McKnight: In sharp contrast to Operation Desert Storm, we knew early on that we would be putting our Marines ashore. Desert Storm employed a tactic of deception. The amphibious assault never happened; it was used as a decoy as troops moved around from behind. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was part of the plan to make it visible that troops were on the Saudi Arabian border ready to enter Iraq when the President gave the word. On 15 February, the Kearsarge and the six other ships of ATFE began off-loading our Marines. The Kearsarge put roughly 1,700 Marines ashore, along with more than 955 tons of heavy equipment, supplies, ammo, food, and water. The entire off-load was conducted in four days. The Marines were put ashore at Kuwaiti Naval Base.

    The off-load process is accomplished using a variety of means. Largely, the Marines are flown ashore using Marine CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters. All heavy equipment is moved using landing craft-air cushion (LCAC) and landing craft-utility (LCU) vehicles. The Kearsarge carries three LCACs. While our experts in the Combat Cargo department make it all look easy, the truth is moving so many people and so much equipment is an incredibly taxing and dangerous evolution. It was not, however, surprising to me that we moved everyone and everything without a single injury or damaged piece of equipment.


    U.S. NAVY (JEFFREY TRUETT) A CH-53E Super Stallion assigned to the 'Condors' of Helicopter Light Squadron 464 (HMH-464) lifts off the deck of the USS Kearsarge for a combat mission to resupply the Marines fighting for control of Southern Iraq.

    Belliveau: What was the reaction among the crew of the Kearsarge and your embarked Marines when they were told that the landings soon would commence?

    Captain McKnight: Because we all knew the Marines would go ashore, there was no surprise about the landing. However, because we all understood we were putting the Marines ashore to possibly go into combat, there was a feeling of respect among the crew as the off-load happened. No one knew for sure, and we still don't, if every Marine we put ashore will return to us. That fact alone keeps things in perspective for all of us. The sailors were happy to have more room, shorter lines, less traffic on this ship, but it was more silent happiness than overt happiness.

    Belliveau: Marines are an amphibious ship's "main battery," but there are some who think they largely are a "fire-and-forget weapon." What have the Kearsarge and other ships in the group done to support the Marines on shore?

    Captain McKnight: It is true that the initial assault is the attention getter in any amphibious operation, but ships like the Kearsarge do not fire and forget. On the contrary, the ship continues to support ground operations through a variety of means. For the large-deck amphibious ships that fly the AV-8B Harriers, close air support is critical to the Marines being able to move forward. Additionally, supplies, parts, and people continually move between ship and shore via helicopters, LCACs, and LCUs. The Marines rely heavily on the continued support from the ships that dropped them off. With few exceptions, the ships that carried the Marines to the battle also will carry the Marines back home.

    Belliveau: Some news stories describe Wasp (LHD-1)-class ships as "Harrier carriers." Although there is a lot more to these ships than that, would you please describe what role your embarked Harriers and Cobras have played in the fight? What about other elements of the air wing?

    Captain McKnight: The term "Harrier carrier" has been used to describe the mission of the USS Bataan (LHD-5) and Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6). Those two amphibious assault ships fly Harriers exclusively. While almost all the large-deck amphibious ships brought Harriers to the theater, for logistical reasons it was determined that the ships would consolidate aircraft to ease the burden of moving parts and maintenance crews during the operation. The Kearsarge's complement of Harriers was flown to the Bataan. In return, the Kearsarge received additional CH-53 Super Stallions, along with the parts and maintenance crews to maintain them. The concept is sound and has made for a much smoother operation in terms of keeping aircraft flying.

    The Cobras, albeit more limited than Harriers, provide close air support to the ground forces. Those helicopters provide the overhead insurance to the forces as they move forward, capable of engaging targets of opportunity and enemy concentrations well in advance of our Marines.

    Belliveau: A lot of effort has gone into countermine operations. What were your concerns about the effects of mines and countermine operations on your mission? And what effects did you encounter?

    Captain McKnight: Operation Desert Storm taught the U.S. Navy a lot about Iraq's mine-laying capabilities. The waters of the Arabian Gulf are hostile waters. Many of the crew and I remember the USS Tripoli (LPH-10), Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), and Princeton (CG-59). All three of those ships hit mines during the Gulf War. All of us in command fully understood Saddam Hussein had the capability, supply, and means to mine the waters around his country and the outlying waters of the Arabian Gulf. The Kearsarge, as with every other ship operating in this theater, has taken, and continues to take, extra effort to look for mines. The problem is that not all mines float on the surface. Mine hunting also is being done by several of our explosive ordnance disposal units. Fortunately, no ship has come under attack from a mine yet, although many of Iraq's ships have been found carrying loads of mines.

    Belliveau: The Wasp-class ships have medical facilities second only to hospital ships in size and capability. To what extent have your ship's facilities been used for treating combat-wounded personnel or for humanitarian purposes?

    Captain McKnight: While it is true the medical capabilities of ships like the Kearsarge are bested only by the hospital ships, the Kearsarge has not treated any casualties—U.S., ally, or enemy. We remain fully staffed to support continuous hospital care around the clock, but are thankful we have not had to put into use that capability.


    Marines from the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade depart the Kearsarge for a port in Kuwait (U.S. NAVY, KENNY SWARTOUT).

    Belliveau: A BBC report from a Royal Navy ship quoted a sailor who described life on the ship after the Royal Marines had landed as "Groundhog Day." What is life like on the Kearsarge these days? How high or low is the operations tempo? How are your officers and crew holding up under it?

    Captain McKnight: No doubt, there is an ebb and flow to the tempo of operations on board the Kearsarge. Some days are busier than others, but we do our best to overcome falling into a stagnant routine. The Kearsarge has more than 1,100 people assigned and we do everything we can to stimulate diversity. Being a large ship, the crew has the advantage of a large gym and library, college professors embarked to teach college-level classes, and lots of sporting events. The Groundhog Day syndrome is preventable, but it takes key leadership doing everything they can to encourage their sailors to find creative ways to break up their days. Of course, receiving mail is the biggest boost to morale. Nothing makes a sailor smile more than receiving a package full of homemade cookies from Mom or from their spouse.

    Belliveau: Although the Kearsarge's operating environment is relatively benign, threats certainly exist. How do you keep your sailors focused on these threats when the main action is ashore?

    Captain McKnight: First, let me say there are no benign threats. Every threat in this theater is taken seriously and is extremely real. I, along with all the officers and chief petty officers, continually stress the importance of not underestimating the potential threats in this theater. As the war winds down, that becomes even more critical. The sailors on board this ship are fully aware the threat is real and that we can never let our guard down. The old adage "Complacency kills" is apropos. Fortunately, the crew has been, and is still, in the battle. They haven't let their guard down for a minute and we will continue such vigilance until we are completely out of any threat area.

    Belliveau: I would think that the ability that modern communications tools, such as e-mail, give sailors and Marines to keep in close contact with people at home could be a double-edged sword. In your experience what have been the positive and negative aspects of this ability?

    Captain McKnight: Almost every sailor on board the Kearsarge has an e-mail address and has the ability to chat with family and friends often. That is an incredible plus over the days before this technology. Additionally, because of satellite communications, the ship has a number of "sailor phones" by which the crew is able to place phone calls home whenever they please. That technology is perhaps the largest boost to morale the Navy has ever seen. Communication today is instantaneous, and that is truly a good thing.

    Having said that, there are concerns about such communication. The entire crew has been educated about operational security. Talking about future operations and exact locations of the ship could be very useful to our enemy and could get sailors and Marines killed. There are several tiers to our unclassified communications network that monitor for such things. Fortunately, the crew understands the need for such security and I believe they understand that to violate that could be tragic.

    The only other drawback to this direct communication is that sometimes a sailor can learn of bad news back home and not report it to his chain of command, thus taking away any chance of receiving some useful guidance or assistance from any of our support channels. By in large, we do well in that area. Most of the people who receive such information directly have notified their chain of command and assistance was provided as they needed it.

    Belliveau: You have been in the "Gator Navy" for much of your career. Looking back, what improvements in the capabilities of U.S. amphibious forces most stand out?

    Captain McKnight: In my 25 years in the Navy, I have seen some remarkable advances in almost every facet of amphibious warfare. On my first deployment, the majority of the Marines and their equipment were put ashore by means of landing craft. Today, the ships are faster, the vehicles are faster and stronger, the aircraft are better maintained, the command, control, communications, computers, combat systems, and intelligence capability is second to none, and the crews who man the ships are much better educated and trained.

    Marines who need to go ashore are most vulnerable between the ship and the beach. The LCACs are an incredible advance in that arena. Moving equipment as fast as 40 knots reduces the time the vehicles are exposed to enemy fire. Moving Marines by helo is quicker and smarter than packing boats full of Marines and sending them, exposed, through the water to an unprotected beach. The amphibious landings of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam look nothing like our current operations. Today our Marines can operate well inland, bypassing the hazards of an opposed beachhead. Every war ends with files of lessons learned. We are a smart Navy. We have paid attention to those lessons learned and applied improvement and attention in almost every area in which someone in the past has said, "This isn't good enough."

    Belliveau: I know that a lot of people made excellent contributions to the successes that your ship and its embarked Marines have achieved. Is there anybody who is especially deserving of praise?

    Captain McKnight: The obvious answer is yes, of course. However, the names are so many that it would be unfair to single out any one person or persons for what they have done to first prepare the Kearsarge for battle and then to help the Kearsarge fight the battle. The fact is, we are a team. More than 1,100 officers and crew make the Kearsarge a ship that is capable of almost anything. I am grateful and thankful to my crew for not only rising to the occasion, but exceeding every possible expectation.

    The people who largely get overlooked are our families and friends who remain in our home port. Our wives and husbands endure a heavy burden when we go to sea, and they are the unsung heroes of any war. Give them the praise; they have earned it as much as any one of us who served on board the Kearsarge.

    Belliveau: As is our custom at the Naval Institute, you have the last word. Is there anything you'd like to discuss that I haven't touched on?

    Captain McKnight: When I took command of the Kearsarge, I had no idea what this crew was capable of. Today, nine months later, I know for a fact what this crew is capable of. It is capable of anything and everything. Others often have spoken of the burden of command. To me, my only burden is figuring out ways to say thank you to each and every one of the officers, chief petty officers, and sailors on board this great ship who have answered their call to duty in a way that would make every American proud. I'm humbled by them daily and look forward to the day we return to Norfolk, and their families and friends provide them the heroes' welcomes they deserve.

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