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thedrifter
07-29-07, 08:06 AM
Carrier's bomb builders do things 'by the book'
By LOUIS HANSEN, The Virginian-Pilot
July 29, 2007
Last updated: 10:19 PM


ABOARD THE HARRY S. TRUMAN

Airman Melissa Hassard sewed and embroidered pillows and curtains to pretty up her small bunk aboard ship. In her spare time, she draws and makes collages.

Some day, the 21-year-old North Carolina native would like to become an elementary school art teacher.

But for now, she builds bombs for the Navy aboard its most lethal class of warship.

"It's completely different," she said.

Hassard and other young sailors build and protect the various missiles, bombs and bullets that deliver the punch for the Navy air squadrons. It's a community that has come far from its defining day 40 years ago today.

On July 29, 1967, a small missile accidentally fired from an F-4 fighter plane aboard the Norfolk-based carrier Forrestal, igniting a fuel tank and a pile of weapons, setting the deck ablaze. Nearly 200 sailors were seriously wounded or killed in the worst accident in modern U.S. Navy history.

It's a vivid lesson, captured on grainy ship's videotape, that the Navy has never stopped teaching. It's an ever-present reminder for the 110 ordnance handlers aboard the aircraft carrier Truman.

Safety equipment and procedures have been added to flattops. Rules for weapons handling and production are orderly and strict.

"They're written in blood for a reason," said Lt. Steve Folsom, ordnance officer aboard the Truman. "We're in a less-forgiving environment."

The sailors handle weapons by the ton, filling 32 specially designed magazines deep into the lower decks of the ship. The loaded carrier brings along $483 million worth of ordnance, ranging from a $2,000 dumb bomb to a $1.5 million guided missile, Folsom said.

The precisely designed weapons can collapse a chemical factory with a few well-placed hits, or pound the breath from a group of insurgents with an airborne explosion.

The typical sailor building these destructive devices is 20 years old.

"I wouldn't trust a 20-year-old to drive my truck," Folsom said with a smirk.

But he trusts this cadre of sailors he calls " little Nintendo kids."

The weapons community has changed since Folsom enlisted two decades ago. The job belonged to men, with rarely a woman in the ranks, and required more brawn than brain.

As a new seaman, the 6-foot-2-inch Folsom was the sapling amongst a forest of taller, broad-shouldered men. He worked his first deployment with teams of knuckle-dragging brutes under F-14s and A-4 attack planes, hoisting 500-pound bombs attached to steel pikes known as "hernia sticks."

Sailors now use more elaborate hoists, lifts and elevators, reducing the physical demands of hauling ordnance. It has opened up for some women.

The bomb handlers compare themselves to Marines - eating and bunking together, training intensely and often blurring the chain of command to get a job done.

Their in-your-face attitude greets visitors on their headquarters door: "The war starts and ends here."

Down in the restricted magazines, the air is filled with the acrid smell of explosive chemicals. A series of metal assembly tables, with sliding trays, form an assembly line for a team of sailors to install fuses, fins and guidance systems.

The sailors are banned from wearing rings, belt buckles and other metal jewelry that could produce sparks. At top speed, they can produce as many as 300 bombs a day.

A network of hoists, levers, forklifts and elevators transfer the finished materials from the magazines to the airplanes.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Conklin said teamwork and caution are the keys.

"It's not real difficult, but it's detail-oriented," Conklin said. "As soon as you get comfortable, that's when people can get hurt."

Truman sailors this week are working up to the fast pace expected on a deployment to the Middle East. The strike group is steaming off the Virginia coast in a two-dozen-ship exercise, its final major test before a fall deployment.

Folsom expects this cruise will be different from the heavy opening salvos of the Iraq war. Fighter pilots have few large military targets left. More often, they strike bands of insurgents fighting Army and Marine units with small, precise bombs and machine-gun fire.

Many in Folsom's unit will be making their first deployments. Airman Christopher Reed, 22, saw a chance to build something unique to the military.

"You have to go by the book," said Reed, a slightly built sailor from Philadelphia. "You have to build every one almost like it's your first."

Hassard, the airman from North Carolina, came to the Navy to pay for school. She specialized in weapons because it's almost the family business - her father spent years in the Marine Corps teaching the craft.

Hassard remembers bomb casings and other non explosive parts decorating the family home. Rob Hassard showed his daughter how the bombs were built.

"At the time, he taught me a lot that I didn't understand," she said. Now, she said, she does.

Louis Hansen, (757) 446-2322, louis.hansen@pilotonline.com

Ellie