Picture by none other than Peter Berg.
“You’re on the newest, most capable ship in the greatest navy in the world.”
That’s how Commander Darren McPherson, CO of the USS Sterett, welcomed us onboard his destroyer, docked in San Diego. I was there with a tiny group of onliners, visiting the Navy’s most up-to-date hardware as part of a press day for Peter Berg’s upcoming film Battleship (for what I learned from Berg, click here).
This was not a standard press day. The event was originally going to be held at Berg’s Film 44 offices in Santa Monica, but a few days in advance the agenda changed. We learned we’d be flying in a private jet and be guests at Naval Base San Diego. It’s a three hour drive to San Diego, but it’s only about 30 minutes in the small jet, which featured comfy leather chairs and couches and nobody telling you to turn off your cell phone or fasten your seat belt. I’m terrified of flying, and I get more scared the smaller the plane is – a big plane, while far more mystifying in its aerodynamics (I always look at jumbo jets as a form of wizardry), absorbs more of the bumps in the air. Flying in a small plane you feel everything.
The jump was so quick I barely had time to be scared, although flying low at just above 1000 feet gave me plenty of time to ogle the SoCal coastline. We were in San Diego faster than it took me to eat breakfast at Denny’s that morning, and we were escorted to the base.
There’s a McDonald’s on the base, which is funny but also sort of obvious – of course the sailors want Big Macs. But there was also a Sbarro’s, which is more puzzling. How did the terrible, overpriced pizza chain win that contract? And who thought making our fighting men and women eat cheese covered cardboard was the right thing to do? But we didn’t spend much time sightseeing the low, colorless buildings of the base – we went right to the slip where the Sterett was docked.
The Sterett’s got some serious geek bona fides: it’s named after the man who was the first captain of the first ship ever to be named Enterprise, a schooner in the 1800s. Andrew Sterett and the Enterprise sailed to the Mediterranean, where they ‘quelled’ the Barbary pirates (the word quelled comes from the Sterett infobook we were given on the ship. I imagine quelled in this case means ‘blew the living shit out of’). There’s been a USS Sterett sailing for the US since 1910. The WWII iteration of the Sterett earned 12 battle starts, and was hit point blank by a kamikaze plane; near Okinawa she was attacked by five kamikazes at once, managed to shoot three out of the sky and was hit by two, who hit near the waterline and disabled her. This version of the Sterett was commisioned in 2008; while there are newer boats in the fleet, the Sterett is the newest boat that has had the longest time out there, meaning that her crew is probably the most seasoned.
It’s a big ship at 511 feet long, painted in what my model kits called gunmetal grey. The Sterett sat at the end of the slip, one of four ships docked there; at a billion and a half bucks a piece, I was looking at six billion dollars in hardware. That’s a lot of money, all of it coming from your taxes. The slip was a bustle of activity, filled with sailors and civilian construction types. The sun dramatically backlit the Sterett; you could almost believe that Peter Berg had chosen this time for the tour based on how dramatic the lighting would be.
Our first stop was the wardroom, where the CO and his men meet and hang out. On the wall was a mug rack, each hanging on a peg with a nameplate above it. Most were US Navy steins, but one lone Jim Beam mug hung above them. In many ways the wardroom looked like a regular meeting room in a mid-sized office, but then you would see the steel walls and the low ceiling and realize you’re on a ship. And getting into the ship is an event – you have to go through an airlock, as the interior of the destroyer is pressurized. The reason? We were told that should the ship be in a nuclear, biological or chemical battlefield the pressurized interior would have air blowing out through a hull breach, as opposed to flowing in.
The wardroom no longer resembles its beginnings; once called the war room, it was where captains split the booty from plundered ships with their officers. Later the wardroom would double as a makeshift hospital and morgue, and the tradition is to remove your hat when in the wardroom, out of respect for those who died – a lesson Berg learned when he wore his baseball cap inside the wardroom. After a quick talk we headed out to see the ship.
First thing to note: getting lost inside the Sterett would be incredibly easy. Every hallway looks exactly the same; you turn a corner, step over a hatch that can lock airtight and see a steep ladder going up and another going down. The walls are covered in pipes and tubes and wires and all sorts of shit, and it all looks the same. I don’t know how much ground we covered while walking around the Sterett simply because I don’t know how often we were covering the same ground again. The halls were cramped and low, but after an hour or two stepping through the hatches, which had six inch lips, became second nature. The thing about walking around a naval vessel is that as a movie fan you’re familiar with it – the inside of the destroyer looked exactly like what you’d expect from seeing Navy ships in movies.
The bridge offered not just a breathtaking view of San Diego, but also a cute little steering wheel that actually drives the huge boat. They should really increase the size of the wheel; while I know that they don’t need to make it person sized, like in the old days, you lose the sense of power when you’re looking at a wheel suited for a game of Gran Turismo. Speaking of video games, the gunner controls were right next to the steering column, and consisted of two joysticks. The Atari generation has changed the world.
The bridge was filled with computers and screens, but for all the high tech equipment there were still paper charts, and there were still crewman on the Sterett who know how to use a sextant. Just outside the bridge sits a lamp that can be used to send Morse code signals to other ships in the event of a communications breakdown; for every modern touch on the boat there was an old-fashioned back up, and people who knew how to use them. It’s an important part of the movie Battleship, but it’s an even more important part of modern naval warfare. An EMP could render an entire ship’s worth of electronics useless in a heartbeat, but the ship must still be fought.
Next up we saw a gun. A big fucking gun. Located on the fore deck, the 5 inch gun pointed menacingly at the San Diego skyline. The whole boat rocks when that gun is fired, but if those shells don’t do the trick there is a bank of 32 missile tubes located just behind it. The missile tubes are mix and match – you can have six Tomahawks and a couple of SM2s and a few Roman Candles, should you feel festive. Standing next to the hatches is a surreal experience; the firepower that could be launched from there at a moment’s notice could wipe out a small town. But it wouldn’t be as surreal as standing inside the missile tube room itself, which was coming up on the itinerary.
The USS Cape St. George was docked across the way from the Sterett, and standing on the deck we got a good look at that ship’s weapon systems, including what Peter Berg called the R2D2 gun. It’s a big domed gun emplacement called a CWIS – close-in weapon system. The gun shoots a staggering 3000 rounds a minute, and is intended to take out missiles that get through the rest of the ship’s defenses. Essentially the CWIS throws up a wall of metal at the approaching missile, and hopefully one of those bullets blows the fucker up. The CWIS has been getting more work in recent years as the destroyer is not at sea firing on other big boats but rather dealing with guys in Zodiacs who pull up alongside with RPGs or suicide vests. The Navy, like the rest of the US military, is using big war machines to fight little, asymmetrical wars. In a lot of ways it makes you look at this billion dollar hunk of high tech steel and wonder if it isn’t a dinosaur, a cannon being used to swat a fly.
A Navy ship is an OSHA nightmare. The steps are just steep, slippery metal protrusions and grates barely cover abysses that go down three or four stories. Long ladders disappear into the bowels of the ship, with only a small rubber net to catch you should you fall. After taking a look at the AEGIS Combat System – a radar controlled weapons system that is the most high tech thing on the boat and that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a metal panel on the side of the ship, we climbed down a staircase that had no rails. Nothing makes you feel like a bigger sissy than being on a boat filled with 300 brave men and women and being afraid to walk down some particularly steep steps.
I don’t know the actual name of the missile room – I’m sure it’s got a particular word, since the military loves naming shit, especially if they can do it with acronyms, but it was the next test of my nerves. To get in you had to step over a gaping, yawning abyss to a ladder, climb up a few rungs and then step out. Once you were in the room with the missile tubes claustrophobia kicks in – the space between the tubes was maybe a foot, and you’re constantly aware that standing between you and tons of explosives and rocket propellant is nothing but some white steel. I tried to listen to the crewman who was explaining the sprinkler system in there – it got up to 160 degrees in the room during launches – but I couldn’t stop considering the existential concept of being vaporized, should something go wrong. We were not allowed to bring cameras or objects that create sparks into the room, but we were a bunch of journalists and publicists – most of us don’t listen, and the publicists would sooner have their arms removed than give up their Blackberries. I kept thinking that some stupid text message would somehow cause a missile to malfunction and explode in the tube.
Yeah, I know I’m neurotic.
Just when I thought I had faced all of my fears we were taken down a very, very long ladder to a room below the waterline where the five inch gun is loaded. I don’t know how far down we went – a thousand million feet? Two hundred decks? – but at one point I made the mistake of looking down. I don’t have a fear of heights, I have a fear of suddenly no longer being high up, and seeing how far I had to fall filled me with a wooziness. The loading room was cramped and hot and filled with more high explosives, and the quick action needed to load the 60 pound shells into the firing mechanism will be reflected in Battleship. Commander McPherson talked about the danger of being in that room – should the ship take a hit higher up and begin flooding, those men would be sealed in, unable to escape. And the way he made it sound they would just stay at their station, feeding huge bullets into that gargantuan gun, until they died.
The truly disconcerting map on the way home. Thanks to Greg Ellwood for the photo.
Another spot where no pictures could be taken: The CIC – the Combat Information Center. When the shit hits the Sterett’s fan, this cramped, dark little room (outfitted with Dell laptops!) is where the CO and his men convene to blow the holy hell out of an enemy. As high tech as the Sterett is, I was amazed to see clear plastic panels at every station covered in white grease pencil; the folks in CIC still take notes and make observations in the way they’ve been doing it for decades. There were more weapons systems down there, including gun controls with a very powerful camera that could see miles away and clearly in the dark.
There were a couple more stops – the mess hall, which has a Baltimore themed mural to honor Bawlmer’s own Andrew Sterett, and the engineering room (but not the engine room. Jet engines propel the boat, and you can’t go into the engine room without serious ear protection). We saw the bunks, where 80 men are squeezed into a space about as big as the first floor of my apartment building, each sailor getting about four square feet of personal space. The day was winding down, though, and the men and women of the Sterett had better things to do than show a bunch of soft leftie journalists around their boat. It was time to head back to Los Angeles, this time with Peter Berg on the plane, giving us the inside scoop on Battleship (which you can read here).
The Sterett is an impressive machine, and the people on it are part of the machinery. The ship was docked, but everywhere we went there were seamen hurrying through corridors, being inconvenienced by the Hollywood dipshits. I can only imagine the sense of chaotic purpose on that ship should the red alert klaxon sound and a battle ensue.
As we left the boat I asked Commander McPherson the question that had haunted me all day. We had spent so much time belowdecks, in windowless, cramped passages. Did the crew get a chance to hit the open air when the Sterett was out at sea, or were they confined inside that metal can. ‘You get out,’ McPherson said. ‘You see sunsets and the sea. It’s why you sign up to be here and not a submarine.’
Choose your own caption:A) This Coke machine commemorates the naval portion of the Cola Wars orB) Shocking pre-production Battleship art reveals the nature of the alien enemy.