For 185 days, Petty Officer Third Class Drew E. Gowdey shared a ship with 6,000 people as the U.S.S. Enterprise celebrated its 50th year at sea.
Construction on the Enterprise was completed 1958 and it was commissioned in 1961 as the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier. The ship was built to see action for 25 years, but is still going strong. It will have one more deployment before it is decommissioned next year to become a museum.
“It is old school Navy,” Gowdey said, as he was home on leave in Naples earlier this summer. Gowdey graduated from St. John Neumann High School in 2005 and went to college. He took a year off in 2008 to join the Navy, and the Enterprise was his second deployment.
The ship has a long history and has played host to presidents, leaders and dignitaries. It retrieved the capsule that held Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as they returned from the moon. It served in its first international crisis in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has been deployed throughout the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the ship is old and lacks the comforts of more modern Navy ships, Gowdey swells with pride when he talks about the ships glory, and its shortcomings. On the most recent deployment, which began in January of 2011, there were 6,000 people aboard the ship. Of those, 3,000 were crew and 3,000 were plane squadron, non-essential personnel or civilian special engineers.
The 20-stories-tall ship sailed roughly 60,000 miles during its last deployment and was involved in missions for 173 of the 185 days at sea.
“The best part about being on ship is that it doesn’t matter if you love or hate the guy next to you, if you want to be safe you have to work together,” Gowdey said. “Of course the worst part is being with the guy right next to you that you hate, but have to work with; that, and maybe the mold in the showers.”
With tight spaces, 6,000 sharing 20 washing machines, two gallies with two serving lines for junior enlisted and three lines for smoking areas, there is plenty of time to get to know the people onboard while waiting in lines. The wait time to eat is typically 45 minutes, and Gowdey said for laundry he has waited seven hours.
“You do laundry in packs of three or four so someone holds the space while you go and do work,” Gowdey said.
As an operations specialist, Gowdey spent most of his time in his small office staring at nautical charts and becoming very familiar with the depths of the world’s oceans.
“We are in charge of plotting our track on the charts for all 60,000 miles,” Gowdey said. “There were roughly 160 charts, a pair of dividers and a ruler. We plot our course, where we are at what time and if we have to maneuver to get there.”
With a ship that drafts 40 feet, navigation can get tricky at times, especially when sailing up the Suez Canal which is only 50 feet deep in places leaving only 10 feet between the keel of the boat and the bottom of the canal.
“The Suez Canal is the most stressful and security measures are very high,” Gowdey said.
The 111-mile long canal is narrow and leaves nowhere for the ship to go if there were trouble.
“It took 22 hours the first time, 18 hours the second time,” Gowdey said. “You have to stay awake a long time. It takes a lot of coffee and cigarettes and a lot of music.”
Gowdey was lucky enough to have a coffee pot in his office so he could skip the coffee line. Coffee is the one thing that everyone in the Navy seems to agree on.
“It is called a cuppa’ Joe because there was an admiral in the Navy with the name of Joe who did away with drinking on the boat; they used to get two cups of rum,” Gowdey said. “Instead you get a cup of coffee, a cuppa’ Joe. Coffee is the biggest thing on the boat.”
The other thing to look forward to is supply day, which typically happens once each week, but can be delayed more than a month if conditions aren’t conducive. With supply day comes cigarettes, mail, junk food supplies for the ship’s store, fuel, food and anything else needed on the ship.
“We love supply days,” Gowdey said. “The supply ship is maybe 50 yards away, we are doing 10 knots, rocking back and forth and they are transferring pallets on a big line and sliding them over. There are also helicopters flying from deck to deck. I love it; it is so cool and fun to watch.”
The ship takes on one to three million gallons of fuel through large fuel lines similar to those that fuel airplanes. When supply ships can’t get to the boat, Gowdey said morale reaches its lowest point. Food, cigarette and coffee supplies get low, and the ship’s store is nearly empty.
“The ship’s store is like home away from home, it is the saving grace because there are Doritos, Pringles, everything,” Gowdey said. “It got to the point to that we were eating cold burgers with no buns for two weeks straight and the only cigarettes on board were Marlboro Reds; I smoke Camel Menthols.”
Low morale is the worst thing that can happen on the ship, Gowdey said. With close quarters, long lines, temperatures reaching 117 on the flight deck and 106 below deck, hot steam showers and endless days staring at the ocean with no land, morale boosts are needed.
“There are a lot of perks; they do a great job taking the best care of us that they can,” Gowdey said. “Like when you don’t hit port for more than 45 days, you get a beer day.”
The Navy flew on 10,000 Fosters beers and everyone on board got a ticket. When they got off of watch, they were allowed to go wait in line to get two beers.
“We all have laptops, so we hooked up speakers and had music and dancing,” Gowdey said. “You were only allowed two beers, but after that amount of heat and stress, those two were perfect.”
At other times there are steel beach picnics where giant grills are set up on the deck, and they grill hamburgers and steaks served with french fries and potato salad.
“Once, Toby Keith flew him and his entire band (and a lot of whiskey) out to the Arabian Sea,” Gowdey said. “That was so cool, like old-school World War II. We were hanging out on the wings of planes cheering and laughing and listening to one of our favorite singers.”
When the ship returns to port after a long deployment, families, spouses, children, parents, siblings are all there to meet the ship for a giant homecoming.
Gowdey’s mom, MaryBeth, says it is one of the most memorable things a person will ever do.
“That first hug, it is the best,” she said with shimmering eyes.
“The best thing is that they let off all the new dads first,” MaryBeth said. “There were a lot of them, it looked like 100 of them and you cant help but tear up.”
“All the new moms they have their own special tent,” Gowdey said. “At that point the dads are more important than the admiral or the VIPs; it’s very cool.”
After his one week of leave, Gowdey headed back to Norfolk, Va., where the Enterprise is docked. He will go to work on the ship everyday while it is in port. He then goes to Sea Combat Air Control School for 30 days. He plans to reenlist next year, and would like to get a degree in oceanography and become an officer. Eventually he would like to be a Navy pilot.
“The military gives you the strongest bonds with people; it’s like a big fraternity with the history and the brotherhood,” Gowdy said. “It’s like a giant fraternity, we just protect the country.”