Commentaries on the PBS Documentary "Carrier"

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Webmaster's Note: "CARRIER", a 10-part series filmed aboard the USS Nimitz, is a character-driven immersion in the high-stakes world of a nuclear aircraft carrier. For more information about the series, visit: http://www.pbs.org/carrier

When Did "The SHIP" Become "The BOAT"? A review written by Stephan Cragg (IC2, Plankowner, 58-60)

After watching "Carrier" for ten hours, I finished the series disappointed. As a sailor stationed aboard two aircraft carriers in my four years in the US Navy almost fifty years ago, I served a total of 36 months of sea duty. So, I was curious about what a film maker for PBS would have to say about an aircraft carrier, specifically the USS Nimitz (CVN68).

The PBS series almost exclusively focused on the air operations of the Nimitz leaving out how the rest of the ship operates whether there is an air crew on board or not. In other words, the production focused on less than half of what happens on an aircraft carrier day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year 24/7. It focused, mainly, on the trials and tribulations of the sailors of VFA41, an aviation squadron assigned to the Nimitz for one six month deployment, commonly called a cruise.

"Carrier" was like watching an iceberg being filmed -- they only showed the tip of it. For instance, when the camera went below decks, the viewer only got glimpses of what it takes to operate a sea-going war ship three football fields long and weighing more than 100,000 tons. And, then, when the film did focus on the mess decks, the dentist's office, the personnel office, the officer's quarters, it left the impression that these functions were there to only assist the air operations. There was some acknowledgement of the nuclear power plant -- "don't go near it unless you want to turn green." There was no acknowledgement of any other permanent operations of the ship, even though ship's company may have included up to 3,000 men and women operating and maintaining this colossal floating city.

I found myself saying out loud to the "airdales" of VFA41 get over yourselves because you were, oh my goodness, on a six month deployment away from your comfort zone of the Naval Air Station back in the US. All of the drama over being gone from home and love ones is a real part of Navy life. When you join the Navy it is expected that you are going to go to sea and that you are going to be gone from home for lengthy periods of time. Such is the life of most sailors.

A six month deployment is the norm, although many ships, including my first carrier, the USS Essex (CVA9), left on a six month cruise and didn't return for almost one year due to mid-deployment changes in international circumstances. I also thought these modern sailors don't have a clue what it was like going on a lengthy deployment without Internet, pay phones and other technologies that keep them in touch with home from on board their ship. Some of the sailors in "Carrier" were talking to their family members or girlfriends or boyfriends ("seven hotdogs to every bun on the ship," according to one sailor being interviewed) every day. The Nimitz also had tv, vcr's and dvd players in practically every sleeping compartment and work space. When I was on both the USS Essex and the USS Independence (CVA 62) the only communication, except in a dire emergency, was by snail mail. Sometimes you didn't get a letter or a response to your first letter for up to a month.

I got lucky when I transferred to the Independence and got a sleeping compartment as opposed to a chain rack and a crappy mattress on the Essex. These Nimitz sailors were complaining about their compartments and their additional lockers. Civilian clothes? Ha! No civilian clothes for enlisted personnel were allowed on board under any circumstances. Whether you were in your home port or deployed overseas and pulled liberty you had to wear your uniform if you wanted to leave the ship. Most liberty was "cinderella liberty," meaning you had to return to the ship by 12 midnight; no staying overnight in some four star hotel so you could escape the confines of the ship for a day or two.

So many things seem to have changed from the Navy of several generations ago. Crossing the equator was a big deal fifty years ago. Today there is nice celebration with "Gong Shows" and entertainment. Without sounding too much like an old grouch, I found the Shellback celebration and so many other parts of "Carrier" to be lacking in many Navy traditions today. But, it is what it is! The film crew brought the viewer a small glimpse into what it's like to be aboard a ship for six months.

But what I really want to know is: When did The Ship become The Boat? That is so new Navy. If a sailor called any Navy vessel, except submarines, a boat they would have been set straight immediately -- "it's a ship, sailor," that takes you out to sea for long periods of time and, whether you like it or not, it's your home and what keeps you safe from the sea: Keep it ship shape and it will keep you!



Ken, I want to thank you for mentioning this 10 hour series in your email. I enjoyed it tremendously. You know, from '58 to '62 aboard ship, we never were allowed to wear civies ashore on liberty, we used stainless steel trays for our food for all ship board meals. We used to get served our food on our trays as we walked the line. Looks like they now get buffet style meals like on the cruise ships with real plates How neat is that?

The enlisted go on liberty in fancy launches and in civilian clothes. I noticed the catapults are different now. They attach to the nose gear whereas we used to attach under the plane with a cable which had to be retrieved after each launch from the bow.

I was an "AT " and I remember everything was tubes and I mean everything, even the flight stabilization systems. We had some diodes in out "IFF" but also had tubes. The radios were mechanically tuned to frequency by motors and gears. God I am so old. I kind of miss the ship nowafter seeing the 10 hour series. Actually is was kind of fun when you discount the standing of watches and the painting.

On the Independence my bunk was right at the end of the port cat and I would sleep till noon and never get awaken by it. We had a black and white TV in the Petty Officers Club and we could catch a movie once in a while. I remember Tony Cappeta an I built a couple of stereo speaker cabinets on the ship from a sheet of plywood we commandeered from ship store. After getting trim from Cannes and speaker grill cloth from Athens and speakers from Lafayette Radio by mail from New York, we were in business. Oh, Tony brought a Knight Stereo Amp with him from Home and I bought a Gerrard turn table through ship stores. Then we were in business. Oh, I also used the metal shop and built a metal cabinet to house the amp and turn table so it could hang from a beam 4 feet off the floor between the racks at the end of our aisle.

Another thing we didn't have was Phones to call home and computers. That's cool! Oh and girls. How about that?

....Tim [Webb]



I've been watching the 8 hour (2 hours each night) program "Carrier" on PBS, and its strength is the time given to portraying the modern day Navy through the lives of its sailors on the USS Nimitz. It departs from other carrier documentaries by following around the ship, a collection of officers and men/women, who make up the crew. It documents their struggles, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses. I can recognize some of my younger self in the various characters. It's not always pretty to watch.

While there are many aspects of modern carrier life that are familiar to me, I must say that this is not the Navy that I knew. For starters, the concept of females on a ship just doesn't make any sense to me, except for the possibility that the volunteer military isn't able to fill the ranks with male sailors aboard ships. I have to confess to being a moderate politically and don't consider myself a sexist, but I can't see the chemistry mixing well aboard a military ship, and last night's episode convinced me that is so. Ditto for female pilots, stationed permanently aboard squadrons detached to ships. Yes, they are competent, but why?

I certainly don't envy the job of the senior petty officers and officers as they try to mold teenagers into young adults, tasked with defending the country. I know it wasn't different during my time, and I pay tribute to that in various places on our site. Once again, thanks to those who helped me in that process. Looking at the modern day Navy, however, leads me to believe that the task is much more difficult today. The Master Chief, who is tasked with leading this process, looks exasperated most of the time; I'm sure he looks back a few decades in his career and can't believe what has happened.

This series brings to life a reoccurring dream that I have: being transported in my present self back to the Navy. As in all dreams, it isn't based on any rationality but probably evokes my desire to relive those days once more. The dream seems to be justified in my bringing to bear some of my accumulated technical knowledge; and for some reason, the Navy needs that. Foolish old man's dreaming! This series does transport me there but in a way I don't know if I enjoy. Perhaps the coming hours will reassure me, but for now, I'm a little nervous. I take some assurance that the planes still launch and land and youngsters and females are helping that to happen. Maybe we're o.k.......we'll see.

Ken Jack

Ken: Like you I too have been watching the series with a increasing disappointment about today's Navy.

While watching flight ops I have that reoccurring dream myself of being back there doing the job. I always miss it when I start recalling my days there. That part of the series really seems unchanged with the sole exception of females participating. It appears to me that a lot of the problems occurring are related to mixed sexes aboard. Glad it was not the way the Navy operated in the 50's and early 60's. Not the Navy I remember.

The Liberty coverage does remind me of some of my episodes as a young sailor with drinking too much. It too is different as in the Navy I was in no one under officer status wore civies on liberty at any overseas port unless they took extended leave.

Another noticable difference to me was the use of plates versus the steel platters that my hash was always served on. The food lines also look more like a self serve line than the one where mess cooks served up the food.

Last night when the squadron commander took the last tanker flight out instead of the female pilot surprised me as I kept thinking he is going to get in trouble for showing sexual discrimination toward a junior officer.

Last night's episode also brought back memories of pitching decks and flight deck operations. When I was an airman plane captain and on my first cruise (US Essex) I was doing my first night ops when I failed to move fast enough for the aircraft director. He placed his foot in my butt and insisted I double time it. As I started across the deck with tie down chains, and at that time hurricane cables I walked behind a AD's prop wash at near full power. It lifted me off my feet and sent me head first down the flight deck toward the side. As I grabbed for pad eyes or anything else to stop by slide. I did manage to grab a pad eye and stop myself without loss of any of my equipment which I failed to mention included the wing and oleo locks as well as the tie downs. Needless to say I thought my a-- was gone. After that I made it to the safety of the island in record time. The day before they had blown a blue shirt over the side. He was recovered by the helicopter.

The coverage last night of the pitching deck really brought back memories of watching and being amazed at how much the ship could rise and fall while pitching and rolling. Great memories.

I do plan on watching the last episode tonight and have taped them all for future viewing. I may order the DVD as I noticed it is available.

Marion Swinford


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Created on ... May 17, 2008