ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN—When the bomb builders go to work, they don't just walk down a passageway to a little room like most others on this aircraft carrier.
Instead, they climb into manhole cover-sized hatch and down a ladder about 30 feet, passing warning signs and a logo with the nickname of their unit, Wolf Pack.
Then down another ladder. And another. Finally, they step into the bomb assembly area, deep inside the ship, as protected as they can be against attacks from the outside.
Stacked in high rows on one side of the room are bombs.
Arrayed on trailers in front of them are bombs. In other storage units both above and below are bombs.
"The first time I came down here I was like `Damn, what did I get myself into?' " said Airman Sean Kelly, 18, of Buffalo, N.Y.
This is the "bomb farm," the place where bombs are put together, or "grown," before being loaded onto the 70 warplanes that fly from the carrier.
Until Kelly and other members of the Wolf Pack work on them, the bombs are simply big shells loaded with explosive. The crew adds fins, fuses and guidance units.
Their days are spent within inches of devices that can demolish a building. The bombs weigh from 500 pounds to a ton.
Lt. Lester Hood, 42, rests his foot nonchalantly on a ledge near the bombs. "These are smart bombs," he says, meaning they've been equipped with guidance systems that rely upon satellites to direct them.
He gestures toward a different pile. "These are dumb bombs. No guidance. Just freefall, and boom."
The bombs are stable as long as they're not hooked up to a fuse. The bomb builders worry more about their size and heft.
"Instead of thinking, `Wow, this could blow up,' you're thinking, `Wow, I don't want to drop this on my toe,' " said Airman Daniel Leubbert, 19, of Jefferson City, Mo.
Still, there's no room for error, for a bomb not going off when it's supposed to or vice versa. "We can't afford to get it wrong," Hood said. "Everything we do has to be perfect, every time."
In the first five days of the war, U.S.-led forces have dropped several thousand bombs on targets in Iraq, all of them the smart kind, guided by satellite systems.
(EDITORS: THE STORY CAN END HERE)
The first attacks from this carrier, in the Mediterranean Sea, were carried out Friday night when 19 warplanes, including F-14 Tomcat fighters and FA-18 Hornets, carried 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.
"It's everyday to us now," said Airman Katie Grace, 23, of San Diego.
"I can learn something new every day," she said of bomb assembly.
"They're definitely a good thing, an instrument for getting us to where we need to be, to take the wrong people out of power."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): bombprep