ABOARD THE USS TARAWA—"They're reporting it's an Omani warship. Is that what you get?" asked Lt. Jacquelyn Hayes, her voice betraying just a hint of worry.
The 25-year-old Hayes, from Mount Airy, Md., was responsible Monday morning for steering the Tarawa, a handful of other Navy ships and several thousand Marines through the crowded, narrow Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
As she did, a fast-moving ship closed hard on this helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship from the port (left) side. The oncoming warship, it turned out, was indeed from Oman, where the United States is basing B-1 bombers and other aircraft for a possible attack on Iraq, and it turned harmlessly away.
That encounter was just one more step in a delicate dance that takes place every time more American firepower cruises toward the shores of Iraq.
The passage from the Gulf of Oman into the Persian Gulf is by now almost routine. But with America on the brink of war in an age of terrorism, and in a region increasingly hostile to U.S. foreign policy, the trip into what is called locally the Arabian Gulf is filled with things that can go wrong.
"The bad shaft is the port shaft. Is that correct?" barked Capt. Jay Bowling, the Tarawa's commanding officer. He's a compact man with a narrow waist and broad shoulders, a tendency to pace his ship's bridge during tense maneuvers and the demeanor of someone whose life at sea has made him more focused than relaxed.
"All right," he ordered the sailors on the ship's bridge, "We're stopping (the engine) RIGHT now."
Bowling had plenty to occupy his attention on Monday. The waters of the Strait of Hormuz are thick with smugglers, who clog the narrow sea-lanes and are liable to dash into the Tarawa's path. Fishermen are even thicker, and indistinguishable from potential terrorists. All the while, his crew tracked the skies and the sea for the planes and boats of hostile countries that call the waters home.
Fast frigates flanked the Tarawa, each armed with Standard surface-to-air and Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles, torpedoes, 76 mm rapid-fire guns and the Phalanx close-in weapons system, which can fire as many as 4,500 20 mm rounds a minute.
Two helicopters circled overhead, serving as both lookouts and intimidators to anyone who might challenge the amphibious assault ship. The Tarawa trailed a Greek warship and the dock landing ship USS Rushmore, and in its wake came the amphibious transport dock USS Duluth.
Their combined cargo of some 1,800 sailors and about 2,100 Marines, along with dozens of helicopters and AV-8B Harrier jets, armored vehicles and tons of fighting supplies marked the continuing build-up of American might within reach of Iraq.
As lethal as the small armada is, it's also a juicy target.
"We've had threats in this area recently," said the captain from White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. "We have to differentiate between a smuggler and a terrorist"—no easy task. Since the look of the boat or its crew gives no clear signs of the difference, the Tarawa's crew was left to watch their behavior.
The ships steamed in tight formation, hoping to discourage smaller craft from cutting between them. When a speedboat, assumed by the crew to be a smuggler, tore in the general direction of the ships, a Navy helicopter buzzed it and the speedboat cut back toward shore.
Bowling had passed through the strait 25, maybe 30 times in his naval career. This was his first in command of an amphibious assault ship. When word came of an aircraft zooming in his direction, his first instinct was to dismiss it.
"It's not even in international waters yet. It's probably a commercial aircraft," he told a subordinate. "I guarantee you it's commercial."
It turned out to be an Iranian P-3 patrol plane, like the model sold to the Shah's regime by the United States in the 1970s.
More than an hour after the plane was first spotted by the ship's radar, the so-called Snoopy group of intelligence specialists buzzed with excitement when the Iranian pilot burst out of the lingering haze and twice flew by the ship's starboard (right) side.
"Oh, man, we're in the mix now," said petty officer second class Brandon Thompson, a 23-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, dispatched to the top deck to train his binoculars on anything that ventured near.
Quickly, he was on the phone to intelligence officers below. "We've got a P-3, Iranian, off starboard and a, whatchmacallit, uh, helicopter off the port side."
Bowling said the warships and planes from the nations along the Gulf were just making a point that the Americans shouldn't consider this territory their own, even if they have the biggest guns and most sophisticated weapons.
"They're all just saying, `Hey, don't think we don't see you coming through.' We'd do the same thing if they were floating by San Diego," the captain said. "It's kind of a game. You just never can tell when the game turns real."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HORMUZ.