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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 02:01 GMT 03:01 UK
Carrier sets sail for unknown war
USS Theodore Roosevelt
The Roosevelt is know affectionately as the Big Stick
By Tom Carver in Washington

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is "Four and a half acres of US diplomacy", according to her captain, Rich O'Hanlon.

Tied up in the quiet waters of the James river, this huge aircraft carrier dwarfed all surrounding buildings.


Aircraft carriers were not built to wage war on terrorists, and no one is certain how she will perform .

In the dawn light, I watched the sailors lugging their kitbags, stereos, books and gym weights on board - whatever they needed to survive for the next six months in this floating village of 5,000 men and women.

Another line of sailors passed them on the gangways going the other way, carrying off bags of rubbish, packing cases and empty cardboard boxes.

Though the Roosevelt's departure date was scheduled long ago, the mission it now finds itself on is anything but routine.

'Big stick'

Aircraft carriers were not built to wage war on terrorists, and no one is certain how she will perform .

The tug boats chugged around the pier and aligned themselves alongside the Big Stick as the sailors call the Theodore Roosevelt, after the former president's most famous aphorism: "Speak softly and carry a big stick".

F-14a Tomcat fighter
F-14 Tomcats form part for the Roosevelt's arsenal

And it certainly seemed an outsize hammer to destroy one man, however dangerous.

Inside her four cavernous hangers, which house 75 fighters and bombers once at sea, the officers lined up their companies.

There were roll calls of names. The atmosphere felt brittle. Like all Americans, the sailors had been hit by the shock waves of Tuesday's attacks.

The average age on board is just 21. Some sailors had visited the part of the Pentagon that was hit. Several came from New York or had friends and family there.

We were asked not to use their surnames to prevent terrorist reprisals.

Jessie, an aircraft engineer, said: "We're the world's greatest power. I feel confident that we will do our job and come back, mission complete."

William, on his first tour of duty, seemed less sure.

"I hope we can find Bin Laden," he said, "and do whatever we need to do."

Battlegroup

Accompanying the Roosevelt are two submarines, guided missile destroyers and a marine expeditionary force. They will steam in convoy towards the Mediterranean and await orders.

Sailor says goodbye before the Roosevelt leaves
No one is quite sure what the Roosevelt's role will be

The battlegroup's commander, Rear Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, has felt the impact of terrorism first hand.

He was on the USS Cole when it was hit by a suicide bomber last year in Yemen.

He told us on the dockside that he was preparing for what he called an "asymmetric war".

"If there are specific targets, we can hit them," he said.

Outside the dock gates stood a subdued crowds of families. A few uncertainly waving the American flag. The tears and nerves and taut faces left little room for jingoism.

One woman, Maureen, clutched her three children closely to her as they scanned the faces of the sailors on the deck hoping to see their father.

"I feel very fortunate that I was able to say goodbye." She said. "Many people in New York never had the chance. I'm sad he's leaving but we have said goodbye."

As they loosened the lines, the Secretary of the Navy spoke to the sailors lining the decks. "God bless this ship on this great endeavour. God bless our president. God bless the United States of America. Good luck."

And then the Roosevelt slipped quietly into the channel, heading for the Atlantic and an unknown war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt in New York
"The first planes are on their way to the Gulf"
The BBC's Paul Moss
talks to veterans of both Vietnam and World World Two
See also:

16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
19 Sep 01 | Americas
Coalition in quotes
19 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair begins anti-terror talks
19 Sep 01 | Europe
EU acts on terrorism
18 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati flies to meet Bush
18 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
China demands US attack evidence
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