I kissed my new bride and headed down the hallway to the elevator. Little did I know that I would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people later in my shift at the command center in Naples. It would also be one of many times that I would make plans to travel with my family and not come home for days or months.
The eleven-story ride ended in the modern lobby of our seaside apartment building. The ocean hissed nearby as I exited the lobby and hopped into my convertible BMW on a brisk winter day. My Navy dress blues neat and pressed; bell bottoms popping in the wind. I was proud to be in the Navy and especially proud to be on an admiral’s staff.
I negotiated the large heavy gate at the entrance to the Military housing complex and descended the narrow road near the sandy beaches that gave way to white washed shops and pine trees in Pinetamare, Italy. The beach side resort was a great place for a new couple to start out. A broad, curving road winded past luxury condos and stores. It gave way to the Tangentiale, the freeway. There was no speed limit enforced. It was fun being able to drive at high speed on the freeway. My thoughts drifted to how wonderful it was to live in Italy and how lucky I was to get an assignment that allowed me to work four days and get four days off.
The pungent smell of the ancient volcano Solfatara greeted me as I exited the freeway after the 17-mile drive. Humpty Dumpty, a well-known prostitute sat on the wall she was so famous for.She offered her services near the freeway exit and the military bases. She was not attractive at all as her name fit her well. I approached the gate at the Navy Annex and saw many Marines with scared faces walking the parking lot going to and from the hospital and the headquarters buildings. They had been injured during an explosion at the Marine Barracks in Beirut. Little did I know but I was to become an integral part of this battle and I would not be going home or sleeping for many days.
I clipped on my security badge and saluted as I passed the quarterdeck and entered the elevator at headquarters. The long white hallway lead to the control center. I entered the code on the push button security lock and it buzzed open the door. The ultra-modern computers (for that time) whirred and the control room was frigid. A large wall was covered with charts of the Mediterranean and it was adorned by magnets with ships names attached displaying the locations of NATO and Soviet vessels all over the area. Multi colored tape revealed the locations of surveillance operations being conducted by elements of Commander Fleet Air Mediterranean.
I began gathering my information necessary for my daily reports following my turnover briefing. The relieving watch was elated to get off and enjoy four days off in southern Italy. I loved gathering information on the system that later became The Internet. Emails were called Swixes and I had a whole stack of them coming in from units all over the world.
We had great camaraderie in terms of display of humor during briefings. A Russian ship called KRUZNETSOV was called “The Cut Your Nuts Off” during briefings. There was the “Scratch and Itch 3” rocket. Twenty years later I would be using this technology to shop, do business, seek romance, everything.
I was not expecting the Vice Admiral to come in. Suddenly he was there. His broad gold rings around his sleeves and chess full of ribbons put my three to shame. I began to stand up at attention, he motioned for us all to be at ease. This was the commander of the Sixth Fleet standing there, now directing me to type messages for him to be emailed out to the fleet. I was so happy that I had taken typing in high school and I could type at 76 words per minute. I typed his messages flawlessly. I knew lives were at stake and a typo could end up costing the lives of innocent people.
He asked me to establish secure communications with USS NEW JERSEY surface action group. I went to the red phone and it buzzed as I established the connection with the task force commander. I handed the phone to the Vice Admiral and he began to issue orders after a brief conversation. “Fifteen rounds, target A, 16 rounds target B” and so on. “Commence firing” he barked calmly. My computer terminal began to light up with reports including the phrase “U.S. ships have opened fire on Beirut”.
The battle went on for days. I did not go home. In 1980’s Italy, it cost $6000.00 to get a phone and the waiting list was longer than my tour in the country. It did not make sense to try to get a phone. Cell phones, texting and personal emails were not accessible then, so, my wife did not know why I did not come home.
The admiral loosened his tie and began to lounge in the control center as we followed the progress of the battle. He would disappear into the back room with the “Spooks” or Intelligence Specialists. There were times when he directed me to order the ships to “Commence firing”. My hand trembled as I issued the orders. I knew hundreds of people were dying as a result of my voice.
I gathered information and developed summary reports to be sent out to U.S. and NATO forces. I was tired but the Adrenalin flowing kept me up for the days that followed the initial attacks and follow on battles. A black fighter pilot was shot down and I coordinated his rescue by directing naval air forces to his location.
I developed summary reports for intelligence briefings. We did not have flat screens at the time for graphic displays. We did have plastic overlays and charts. I was proud of myself as I placed overlays on the charts and briefed figures such as estimated civilian casualty rate, estimated foliage destruction. In subsequent years I would learn more about the people I had killed and the people I had killed for. I woke up from the fog of American International policy propaganda and realized that I was not a freedom fighter, I was a storm trooper. The story of the Syrian infants made this very clear. Little babies, arching their backs in agony after being chlorine gas bombed. I had been a part of a team that had killed hundreds with hundreds of high caliber explosive shells. Shells that traveled 26 miles and weighed as much as a Volkswagen.