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With go-bags always packed, Virginia-based sailors go to ends of the Earth to keep Navy supplied

Seaman Stanton Smith of Navy Cargo Handling Battalion checks the fuel meter wile refueling a plane during the Northern Viking 22 exercise on Keflavik Air Base in Iceland. (Dave Ress/ Daily Press/TNS)

Sailors at the Navy’s only active-duty cargo-wrangling unit, at Cheatham Annex in Yorktown, keep their go-bags packed. They’re ready — on 72 hours’ notice — to embark on a mission that can take them to the ends of the Earth.

And over the past few months, they did:

To Iceland for the first U.S.-led Northern Viking exercise, drilling on securing the strategic Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, the high Arctic route Russian submarines use.

To Antarctica, unloading supplies for this year’s research teams scattered across the icy continent.

“It was cold! … You’re sitting down right on the asphalt,” said Seaman Stanton Smith, one of the half-dozen sailors who teamed up with Marines to run a refueling operation for Navy planes on anti-submarine patrols.

Though it was summer in Antarctica when 32 shipmates from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion One arrived at McMurdo Station a few weeks earlier, it didn’t feel that way.

“It snowed every day we worked … sometimes, coming in sideways,” said Boatswains Mate 1st Class Robin Westfall, a “hatch captain” responsible for the night shift team of sailors moving cargo with one of the giant cranes on the supply ship MV Ocean Giant.

All in all, the Cheatham Annex sailors moved nearly 7 million pounds of supplies — some 503 pieces of cargo including containers, vehicles, construction materials, electronics equipment, and also a modular building. They loaded the ship with ice cores to return to the U.S. for study, as well as trash and other items the Antarctic researchers no longer need.

Driving the crane — heftier than those at Cheatham Annex on which she’s been training  — Seaman Vannessa Carbajal was in constant walkie-talkie contact with Westfall and the rest of her team.

She had a good feel for compensating for the list and rocking of the MV Ocean Giant moored to at ice pier at McMurdo because she could compare to operating a land-anchored crane at Cheatham Annex. Westfall and Lt. Elizabeth Flanary fed her regular readings on the wind — and there were plenty of times Flanary had to call a halt to the operation.

“The sun barely sets, but the weather changes at night, the wind really picks up,” she said.

All of them, meanwhile, were keeping a sharp eye out for the team of Seamen Dustin Branum and Danny Drayton, the line handlers, down on the Ocean Giant’s deck.

Their job was to pull or loosen up on lines attached to the semi-truck-trailer-sized containers to guide them into place and to make sure they didn’t start swinging dangerously in the wind.

It’s a job that means carefully watching one another for any sign the movement of a container is getting to be too much for a partner.

“If I see it’s swinging and he needs to haul in, I’ll loosen some slack; sometimes, I’ll have to hold on and he’ll give me some slack,” Branum said.

They had to do their job through that sideways-blowing snow, which made the Ocean Giant’s deck slick. “I don’t know how many times I fell down,” Drayton said.

The cold also meant the “pineapples” — the twist locks that secure containers to a deck or to one another — froze hard. After trying everything else, Drayton needed a blow torch to thaw the pineapples so they could be unlocked.

“Hot water just doesn’t work,” Branum said.

Watching out for one another the way the stevedore team did was key for the sailors running the refueling operation in Iceland for Northern Viking as well.

Once Smith, Constructionman Austin Leisure and Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Michael Provenzano connected all the 50-foot sections of flexible hose for the fueling station, they rotated through all the jobs of running a refueling field station.

That’s testing the fuel, operating the pump on the combat-hardened tanker truck, “line-walking” — monitoring meters measuring the flow of fuel through the hose — operating the nozzle to fill the P-8 Poseidon patrol planes’ fuel tanks and standing by with a “fire bottle” of flame suppressant to douse any spills.

It’s noisy on a flight line, so they coordinate with hand signals: the line walker’s finger pointed up and circling tells the sailor at the pump to step up the pace. Sometimes, that’s not the problem; usually, the answer to a slowing flow is that the plane’s fuel tank is nearly full, which the sailor at the nozzle can tell by watching a fuel gauge on the plane’s wing.

The nozzle operator’s finger circling — this time, pointing down — can tell the sailor at the pump to slow the flow. The line walker can check if the filters in the hose are the problem by looking at a differential pressure sensor.

“If it goes over the red bar, that’s the problem,” Provenzano said.

But they can’t get started refueling a plane until they’ve tested the fuel.

“Dry fuel is good fuel,” Provenzano said.

While it was cold in Iceland, it’s even colder at the altitudes P-8s hit, and if there’s any water in the fuel, it can freeze. The team tests for water, as well as dirt and other particles. They also test that there’s enough de-icing FSII — pronounced “Fizzy” for fuel system icing inhibitor.

In the end, said Seaman Austin Leisure, you have to trust your training — the regular practice at Cheatham Annex — to do the finicky tests, even out in the cold by the side of a taxiway in Iceland, and get the right result.

And then, the team’s chief and commanding officer — along with the pilots and squadron commander — have to trust the sailor doing the tests.

“I’ve been in (the Navy) for two years,” Leisure said. “But we train a lot.”


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