By Alastair Gale
Monday marks the 62nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, when North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South in a conflict that has never formally ended.
This year the anniversary coincides with the final day of a three-day naval exercise off the southwest coast of the peninsula, a drill that South Korea says is intended to show readiness for any fresh military incursions by the North.
The Wall Street Journal was among several news organizations that on Sunday visited the USS George Washington, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that led a flotilla of 10 vessels in the exercise. Coming on the heels of a tripartite naval exercise that also involved Japan, the staff on the carrier had been working around the clock for several days.
Some of that fatigue was clear among the crew. On the flight control deck, a small room in which staff direct the movement of aircraft on the ship, the aircraft handling officer said the staff were working around 15 hours a day.
“They give us two bananas for the extra hours to keep us going,” he joked.
Of course, being prepared for combat action means being prepared for relentlessly long hours on duty. During exercises, 10 to 15 aircraft are launched in quick fire bursts and then another 10 to 15 around 90 minutes later before the first batch return, explained commanding officer Captain David Lausman. That happens repeatedly for 12 hours a day.
Aircraft are fired from one of four ‘catapults’ on board that accelerate the planes—mainly F-18’s–to over 160 miles per hour within two seconds in a fury of noise and heat. (The rush of acceleration for one of these was a highlight of the trip – time appears to stand still for a few moments.) Returning craft are instantly slowed by their tailhooks that catch one of four arresting wires across the landing deck.
The seventeen-story ship and its 6,000 staff was a blur of activity. The average age on the flight deck is just over 21 years old, with staff in color-coded shirts to denote their responsibilities. In the ships hanger area, off-duty staff used free spaces to work out.
Some other stats about the ship: Length of flight deck: 1,092 feet (about three football fields). Aircraft on board: around 60. Meals served daily: 18,000. The ship’s two nuclear reactors allow it to travel for almost 18 years before refueling.
The ship declined to make any pilots available for interview but Capt. Lausman stressed that the drills were not substantively different from other annual naval exercises between the U.S. and South Korea despite recent threats from Pyongyang against Seoul.
He also welcomed the prospect of further three-way exercises with Japan to foster coordination and boost security and expressed openness to further naval cooperation with China.
“The invitation is with every country that we meet in international waters,” he said when asked if drills with China would be a possibility.