main story image for facebook sharing

Lessons Learned

USS Cole survivors on the importance of training

As the sun set in Aden, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, Sailors aboard USS Cole (DDG 67), were exhausted, hot, hungry, covered in soot and even dried blood. Many of them carried scrapes and burns and bruises from the explosion that had rocked the ship at 11:18 that morning. Most were still shocked and grief stricken from losing 17 shipmates to terrorism. All were on alert, afraid a second attack could occur at any moment.

Their fight had only just begun. The real battle would be keeping the Cole afloat in spite of the gaping 40-by-60-foot hole in the side and the crack that went down to the keel. It would take every ounce of the crew's collective training, plus a lot of ingenuity and jerry rigging.

Most of the ship had lost electricity, and with smoke, standing water, fuel and loose wires, conditions were extremely dangerous for the Sailors in charge of fire response and damage control (DC). They sprayed foam to keep the fuel from igniting, and by the light of the dim headlamps on their battle helmets, they cut through steel and ripped out bulkheads.

"Can you imagine being down there and the water's thick with fuel and lifting a welding torch? It could have set the whole ship on fire. The guy was a hero," said retired Master Chief Hospital Corpsman James Parlier, the Cole's command master chief. He was referring to a Sailor who volunteered to cut holes in the side of the ship for water pumps. "You have to remember ... we had Sailors down there with no light, just a battle lantern. It's over 100 degrees so they had short times because of heat conditions, listening for bulkheads that were about to collapse or monitoring any flooding. Pretty scary."

Sailors established smoke and fire boundaries, documented the damage, isolated mechanical and electrical systems as best they could and sealed watertight hatches to contain flooding as much as possible. They dewatered, and electricians repaired power lines while other Sailors stood watch, guarding their ship.

And then, just when it seemed like the crew had things under control, after other American ships had steamed in to help and Sailors were able to eat and shower, some of the watertight seals gave out late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. Water poured into one of the main engineering rooms. Plugging the leak didn't work. Daisy chaining pumps didn't work. The water kept rising, finally taking out the generator supplying emergency power to the Cole.

Image collage 1

Retired Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney woke up to find an old-fashioned bucket brigade, with Sailors manually hauling water out of the engineering room.

"Just the Saturday before, there were so many successes," remembered Abney. "We'd stopped all the progressive flooding. We had power jumpered up forward. We had chill water jumpered up forward. We had the forward berthing areas opened up. This was real success. And you saw this look of defeat in a lot of these kids' eyes, like we were going to lose the ship."

The DC team finally cut a hole in the side of the Cole, snaking a pump out of the ship and above the waterline. Next came the power, which came back on later Sunday. According to Abney, after borrowing some fittings from divers the Navy had sent in, repairmen connected torpedo air hoses to two diesel units and powered the generator that way.

The crew was very innovative. They did things that you don't read in a book." - HMCM James Parlier

They also, Parlier added, relied on their training. "All those young men and women who had to put their 'grow up now and do it' caps on realized ... training is not for naught ... and that training meant saving their ship and their shipmates. Everything they learned was put into action that day and those days after. ... I know (Sailors) complain about all the drills, training and more training that you do in all combat areas - DC, medical and more - but it pays off. ... We kept our ship afloat."

The Navy took those lessons and turned them into training for new Sailors. Battle Stations 21, the final evaluation for recruits at Recruit Training Command, Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, incorporates a scenario from the Cole attack, as well as other tragedies at sea, and forces incoming seamen to work together to save their ship.

Realistic special effects make it feel like the attack and its aftermath are unfolding around them, said Jason Mosher, the simulator's operations technician. He should know; he survived the Cole bombing himself.

"I saw it as a way to honor our fallen shipmates and keep their memory alive because the kids that come through here every night, they hear about them and they know about them," he said. "It's not just part of boot camp curriculum. They get to experience something. ... From what we've heard about Sailors who have been through here, they don't forget it. That's pretty powerful.

"I would hope that our shipmates would know that they're not forgotten," Mosher continued. "Their shipmates ... are learning a lot from their legacy, and they're learning a lot that will help save their lives, hopefully, if something like that should happen again. ... A facilitator here once told us ... when the recruit got to their station, the facilitator told them to wait. ... The recruit responded, 'Petty Officer, I'm not going anywhere. I'm scared [expletive].' That's exactly what we hope for, and that's what will help those Sailors going forward ... that sort of preparation for the eventuality of taking combat damage."

Still, no matter how scary and important training may seem in the beginning, over time, battle drills and damage control exercises can start to feel rote, tedious even, the Cole chiefs conceded. The repetition is there for a reason, designed to develop muscle memory and teach Sailors to react instinctively, and so they can't let themselves become bored.

Image Collage 2

For example, on a visit to a newly repaired Cole five years after the attack, Parlier was stunned to see Sailors falling asleep during routine training. They saw a memorial to 17 fallen shipmates every day. Out of anyone in the Navy, he thought, crew members on the Cole should know the stakes. Trying to keep his anger under control, he told them, "Some of you need to wake up here. This is the stuff that gets you in trouble - complacency."

To keep it fresh, Abney suggested that Sailors think about their training differently.

They should "figure out a way to innovate it in their minds," he advised, "keep twisting the scenario so it's something they find interesting and they get more out of it, by maybe putting themselves in a situation they wouldn't normally be in and trying to figure out how they would get out of that, much like we do sometimes with active shooter training."

This is crucial, Abney pointed out, because in an emergency, the officers and the chiefs don't always emerge as the key leaders. Often, the Sailors who are filling responder roles every day are best equipped to take charge. It's incumbent on senior leaders to recognize this, he explained. A crisis is not a time for a power trip.

You never know who's going to be leading in a particular situation, but typically it's going to fall on the person that really knows what to do best." - STCM Paul Abney

"Whether I outrank somebody or not, if I know he knows this job better than me, if he's more prepared to do the job, by all means, I would let him lead the situation and have the most chance of success," he said. "There's a pride in the fact that these younger folks have learned these aspects that you were trying to teach them, and them knowing it better than you makes you feel even better.

"You want to be that person," he tells young Sailors. "You want to know your job inside out and better than your shipmate because he might not be there. It could be him that's taken out and then you're dependent on him. You might not be able to get out now because you didn't learn the job yourself."

Editor's note: Read more about the USS Cole tragedy in All Hands here.