Sailors from Helicopter Support Squadron (Light) 60 embarked onboard the frigate Elrod wash the salt spray and grime from one of the two helicopters the detachment flies from Elrod. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
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Seamen Christian Cseh enjoys a solitary smoke on the port side of the frigate Elrod while at sea May 11. As with all Navy ships, smoking is only permitted outside and in designated areas. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
ABOARD THE FRIGATE ELROD — There's a gritty pride among those who serve aboard the Navy's oldest class of warships — unloved by the brass but babied by their crews.
When something breaks, as things frequently do, it's a training opportunity. Shrinking crews mold well-rounded sailors. And the cramped quarters build tighter bonds among shipmates.
Welcome to the "Ghetto Navy" — a badge sailors aboard the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates proudly wear.
"These ships are the oldest combatants in the fleet, and it's no secret that things are always breaking out here," Chief Gas Turbine Specialist (Mechanical) (SW) James Richards said aboard the Elrod, which is on a 6-month counterdrug patrol in the Caribbean Sea.
Even as he said those words while sitting in his "office" — a desk tucked in Elrod's engineering central control station — an alarm cut the air. Without missing a beat, Richards stood and walked over to GSM2 (SW) Caleb Tubbs, standing as the engineering officer of the watch.
"Chief, we've got a ‘low oil' reading on the No. 1 turbine, recommend we switch to No. 2 and shut it down," Tubbs said.
Richard got busy at the tall, gray control panel full of lights, dials and switches.
Seamlessly, while communicating every move to the bridge, the switch was done in a matter of minutes and watchstanders were dispatched. It took a couple minutes to make the switch and issue Tubbs directions to get someone down to the main machinery space to check out the problem.
"We'll need to get supply to break out some oil," Richards said. "But they're all in training right now. It'll have to wait, but get that ball rolling."
For Richards and Tubbs, it's business as usual on a ship that's older than many of its crew members.
"As you can see, this plant is old and requires constant care," he said. "That's a mixed blessing, but the bottom line is our sailors get to deal with casualties all the time — we drill on what to do and they get to practice what they learn on a regular basis because something always needs to be fixed."
The Navy built 51 of the 4,100-ton Perry-class ships, commissioning them between 1977 and 1989 as inexpensive and expendable escorts for carriers, amphibious forces and supply convoys. The design has proven popular around the world, with another 20 being built for Australia, Spain and Taiwan. Many of the 30 "figs" that have been discarded by the fleet are now serving in the Bahraini, Egyptian, Pakistani, Polish and Turkish navies.
The remaining 21 are likely headed for the same fate in the coming years as the Navy places its faith in the smaller, faster littoral combat ship to perform traditional frigate missions.
Three were put down this fiscal year and six will go in 2013. Seven will depart in 2014 and 2015. The remaining three will go at a slower pace, with two leaving in 2017 and the last, the Ingraham, in 2019.
The problem is the frigates are going away faster than the Navy can build the LCS to replace them.
That delay has caused many observers to call on the Navy to cover the gap by extending the life of the remaining frigates, but officials are sticking to the schedule, saying the ships are too worn-out to make it worthwhile.
"There will be 31 fewer ships to do the same number of missions in 2015 than there were in 2009," retired Navy Capt. Rick Hoffman, who commanded the frigate DeWert and later the cruiser Hue City, wrote in a 2009 paper. "Decommissioning the FFGs prior to LCS arriving in the fleet in sufficient numbers to cover the mission set seems to introduce significant risk."
The end result, he said, will be the Navy doesn't have the ships to cover the missions they're doing today, and some things will have to give. Officials have hinted that counterdrug and nation-building work in Central and South America will be one of those things.
Until then, the Elrod is the tip of the spear. And the ship's sailors have become adept at doing more with less as manning has gradually been cut.
"That's what frigate sailors do," said Senior Chief Gunner's Mate (SW/AW) Asa Worcester, the ship's command senior chief. "That's not a bitch, that's a fact that we live with every day ‘cause the mission still has to get done."
This is Worcester's second tour on Elrod and third on a frigate. He made chief onboard Elrod and is proud to be back as the ship's top enlisted sailor.
"I feel there's something special about these ships and the type of sailor it produces," he said. "Grow up in this environment and you'll be a better sailor for it — our sailors don't just survive, they thrive."
That sentiment is echoed up and down the ranks. Life is tough onboard the 453-foot-long, 45-foot-wide ship. The gear is old and has a tendency to break. But still, Worcester said, the mission gets done because of the crew.
"We've got old machinery that doesn't always work. In fact, we still have electronic gear in here that uses vacuum tubes. You know how hard that is to fix?" Richards said.
Even worse, he said, is the lack of spare parts. Many of the companies that provided the gear in the 1970s and 1980s are now out of business, causing Elrod and the other frigates to scrounge for parts and often make their own.
"And that's where our sailors benefit," Richards said. "Sailors learn their jobs best by doing them, by tearing down gear and rebuilding it — and this is a real hands-on environment for them to learn."
That reality has turned Tubbs, who at six years and counting onboard the Elrod is the vessel's longest-serving sailor, into a top second class petty officer who stands engineering officer of the watch, a very senior watch station.
And it's not just engineering sailors who benefit from the facts of frigate life. Even in the technical ratings, that same story comes through.
"This ship was designed as an [anti-submarine warfare] platform, but we're not doing that much these days," said Chief Sonar Technician (Surface) (SW) Scott Boger. "We have essentially one watch section, about half what [an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer] has."
"My sailors have to be more involved in the gear that they would on a newer ship where much is still under warranty," he said. "Our gear is older and problematic, leading to them getting more troubleshooting time."
Boger said they still train for the ASW mission by conducting scenarios regularly. But frigate duty for them is a chance to expand themselves as sailors, he said.
"The result is that on a deployment like this and on a frigate in general, my guys have the ability to do more things outside the division," Boger said. "That, in turn, makes them more competitive long-term against their peers outside the Navy.
In the most recent marking cycle for second classes, he said, of the six early-promote recommendations the ship was allowed to give, two of them were from Boger's crew of seven sonar techs.
The learning opportunity of frigate life isn't just on the deck plates. It's also in the wardroom, according to Cmdr. Jack Killman, Elrod's commanding officer.
"For a junior officer, a frigate is a moving classroom," he said. "You have the chance to stand a lot of watches and learn, and you don't have to fight for collateral duties as there's more than enough to go around." All this results in a very tight crew from the skipper down to the lowest seaman.
Living conditions are also tough. It's cramped, and the ship also tends to roll with the seas more than newer, wider vessels.
"It's too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter," said Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 2nd Class (SW) Lance Ellis. "Once we were showering in cold water for two weeks before that was fixed. You just learn to deal with it and it's no big deal. Frigate life just makes you tougher."
For example, he said, frigates only have a central laundry facility.
"We put our stuff in mesh bags, and it's picked up and washed that way," he said. "It comes back wrinkled and sometimes damp. I wish we could just do it ourselves."
"I have ‘A' school classmates who went to bigger and newer ships with all the amenities," Ellis said. "They haven't learned half of what I have. They have no idea what my world is like."
Because there are fewer people, all crew members experience work such as handling lines and painting the ship, as well as standing all kinds of watches and bringing on supplies.
When asked how many of the 180-person crew he knows personally, Ellis calmly said: "Everybody."
"The bottom line is we're a family," he said. "I asked to come to a frigate on the advice of the chiefs who taught me in ‘A' school who said a frigate would make me a better sailor. They were right."
"You are on a very friendly basis with everybody and you know small facts and trinkets about them and they know small facts and trinkets about you," he said. "You may not see someone everyday, but you know them. When someone's wife has a baby, you hear about it — next time [you] pass them in a passageway, you congratulate them."
All this is what brought Worcester back to Elrod. Though, for him, it'll end on a sad note.
"I'll be here when the ship decommissions, I'll have to help put her out of service," he said. "But for now, there are missions to do and a yard period coming up to plan for.
"After that, we'll work up and deploy at least one more time. We just don't have the time to worry about that now. There's too much on our plates today, and that's just the facts of frigate life."