Music blares from a 1950s-style juke box and record albums hang from the walls of the mock Hard Rock Cafe in a once-drab gray mess deck that sailors of the USS Independence have made up to feel like a piece of home.
With tensions in the Persian Gulf waning but no end in sight to a dramatic U.S. military build-up, sailors aboard the aircraft carrier are getting a chance to relax a bit and focus on home and the families they have left behind.
Below the ship’s flight deck, Petty Officer 1st Class James Thompson nervously awaited word from his wife Mayumi, who was already a day overdue to give birth.
“I’m on pins and needles trying to call home,” said Thompson of Pensacola, Fla.
Above deck, F-14 Tomcats and F-18s armed with air-to-air missiles smacked into the carrier deck, sending a shudder throughout the ship as they returned from patrols over a no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
Rear Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr., said that since the signing of an agreement between Iraq and the United Nations to allow unrestricted weapons inspections, officers have to work harder to keep the men focused on their mission.
The United States had threatened air strikes if Iraq would not allow unfettered access to the weapons inspectors and the men of the Independence had expected to carry out some of those bombing raids.
“It was easy to maintain morale and focus … when everyone was moving steadfastly toward the execution of a strike,” said Moore, who leads the Independence battle group. Now, we “have to work a lot harder … to keep them sharp.”
To boost morale, the ship recently held a talent night and a weight lifting contest. Friday is pizza night.
“We try to make this more like America because we don’t live in America,” said Mark Milliken, the ship’s captain.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier, which has a crew of 5,000, said the music cafe is one of the few places where they can relax. Most of the crew work 12 to 16 hours a day.
Sailors said they spend most of their spare moments writing e-mails and letters to their friends and family. A few fathers said they read stories to their children through videotapes that they mail home.