During Desert Storm, the USS okinawa was the Senior ship of our Amphibious Group. Being the Senior ship, she was leading a a couple other ships in a single file.
My job as a Signalman was to send and receive messages visually by flashing light, semaphore (if the other ship was close enough to see that), and by flags (during daylight). In order to maintain an open line of communication, you had to constantly watch the ships in your visual range in order to see if and when they would signal you. This made for some boring nights. Certainly we watched more than we communicated.
On one particular cold night, I took first watch aft to monitor the following ships for signals. This was the more desired watch, especially on a cold night. The perfect perch because there was a large storage box to sit on next to ships exhaust stack but lower down from the stacks opening that kept us from inhaling copious amounts of exhaust. It would get so warm there that within a few minutes you would remove your jacket for comfort. I was the watch supervisor so naturally I took this choice position first. To be fair though, we would rotate positions every couple hours.
I was at this aft position when one of the most harrowing nights I had ever had in my navy stint begun to unfold. An hour or more into my cozy perch, one of my watch mates from the forward position came running to my aft position. Excitedly he told me that an object floating off our starboard bow appeared to be a mine! The forward watch position had an optical device designed to detect chemical/biological releases. It also had an infrared filter that we used more frequently. I followed my shipmate to the forward position where a third signalman was tracking the object with this optical device. I looked into the device and saw exactly what they saw. I can still see the image now. It haunted me for years later. There in the field of view was this sphere with spikes reaching outward. If you ever seen WWII navy movies, you have certainly seen this same image. The sphere appeared to be 5 to 6 feet in diameter, bobbing in the calm waves, about one half mile from our ship. I rushed into our office we affectionately called the signal shack and called the Bridge on he the ships intercom system we knew as the bitch box. (I’m not making this up. That’s what the navy calls it.) I quickly relayed the information to the Officer of the Deck (officer in charge that runs the pilot house of the ship, the Bridge). I don’t remember the officer’s name, but incredibly he denied my request to illuminate the object with an unfiltered searchlight. I wanted desperately to warn the ships aft of us. Instead he asked for me to describe the object! After quickly describing it, he told me that the mines being used by the Iraqis were nothing like the WWII type of mines. I went back to the aft position and tried to call the ship behind us with a filtered signal lens. I passed the information unofficially using an operator to operator, informal message. Basically a signalman to signalman conversation. Unfortunately, morse code via flashing light isn’t very fast. An above average would be 12 words per minute. Gut wrenchingly slow with such an urgent message to convey. All during the transmission I was half expecting an explosion. I held my breath. The response I got from the other ship was that they couldn’t see it. As each agonizing minute went by, I figured the chances improved for the following ships to miss it. To my relief, all ships passed safely.
After my service, I had often replayed the events of that night. Mad at my self for not disobeying orders and illuminating that object unfiltered. I kept recalling the image I had seen in the viewer of that optical device. Did I really see what I saw or did I trick myself into seeing what was explained to me? Since I was so worried about this all these years latter, how much more difficult would it have been had one of the ships took the hit?
Fastforward about 6 years later to 1997. AOL was the popular internet access via dial-up. One of the first things I did was to look up images of Iraqi naval warfare mines of Desert Shield/Storm. And there on my screen was an image of a Navy Seals practicing on deactivating a mine that eerily resembled similar characteristics of the object we saw that night.