Shadowing the 7th Fleet


Michael Raffety

Dipping into my collection of interesting news tidbits I found one from USA Today – not one of my usual sources of news. I was forced to read what I generally regard as news pabulum because the hotel I was staying at back in June did not have a Wall Street Journal. And, of course, I was too far out of town to get a Mountain Democrat.

The headline in USA on the bottom of page 3 was “China shadows U.S. ships as tensions in Asia rise,” with a subhead of “Chinese warships sail near Japanese, U.S. vessels in war games.”

The USA Today reporter was actually on board the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John Stennis in the South China Sea, part of the 7th Fleet. The war games that included the carrier strike force began in the Philippines Sea with ships from the Japanese and Indian navies. A carrier strike force is overseen by a rear admiral and includes destroyers, cruisers and submarines. Often it may include resupplying the carrier at sea and refueling the destroyers and cruisers, depending on how long they will be at sea.

“We did see PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) ships quite routinely throughout the South China Sea. In fact, we are in constant visual contact with at least one PLAN ship at any one time, 24/7,” Rear Adm. Marcus Hitchcock told the reporter.

The Chinese navy ship followed three to four miles from the aircraft carrier. Then a Chinese intelligence gathering ship followed the carrier group into the Philippine Sea from a distance of about seven to 10 miles.

When I finished Avionics fundamentals school they flew me to Frankfurt, Germany, and then Rota, Spain, where I waited for a flight to Malta. That’s where I caught up with the USS Saratoga and reported aboard to the Officer of the Day, who was an ensign in a plaid sport jacket, obviously waiting to go on liberty as soon as he got the 19-year-old airman on board.

The Navy always figures out how to send the new kid on the block to the scullery. Before I got my billet for avionics school they assigned to spend the Memphis summer working in the Marine scullery. After work was done I got to relax in a barracks without air conditioning. Then after eight months of avionics training, my first assignment on the aircraft carrier was scullery duty again.

But I digress. Being shadowed by an adversary is not a new thing. Throughout the eight months the Saratoga spent in the Mediterranean on 6th Fleet duty it was constantly followed by a Soviet intelligence ship “disguised” as a fishing trawler. It was visible enough that I even got a twilight photo of it with my Kodak Instamatic from the flight deck. By this time I had moved from the scullery to the Line Shack as a Brown Shirt on the flight deck, pumping oil into the parked jets, hooking a strap onto the 20 mm cannons to avoid being blown off the forward flight deck. Eventually I was assigned to the squadron’s Avionics Shop and became a Green Shirt when on the flight deck.

The Saratoga was not a nuclear ship, so during an eight-month cruise it was refueled while underway, a real delicate operation with hoses stretched from the fuel ship to the aircraft carrier transferring both fuel for the ship and jet fuel.

Whether it was refueling, resupplying or conducting flight operations the “fishing trawler” with its mass of antennas followed us everywhere. That was 1966. Nothing has changed in 50 years except name of the adversary.


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