Navy Christmas 1998

Stories of the High Seas…
For the next 2 weeks, B Roll Online will be coming to you from the Med… Kevin Johnson and Reporter Joe Flanagan are covering the Navy for a Documentary called “Navy Christmas.” Updates will come as often as possible from off the coast of Italy and Israel.

Many thanks to the Crew of the USS Nassau for hooking me up with a way to update B Roll Online from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  Technology is amazing, isn’t it?

November 27, 1998
[ENG Cam]Today was the big travel day.  Almost 18 hours of airplanes, airports, transfers, and waiting.  I’ve gotten pretty good at sleeping on planes… (actually good at sleeping in many different strange places.)  Having to leave on Thanksgiving Day wasn’t very much fun, and the airplane food didn’t compare to a good turkey feast, but sometimes that’s what this strange job of Television News is all about.

We are now on the Naval Base in Sigonella, Sicily.  Tomorrow morning, we hop on a helo and fly out to the USS Nassau.  This amphibious assault ship will be our home for 7 to 10 days, and has every toy you could imagine. Helicopters, Harrier jets, humvees, tanks, and smaller boats… this was everything I imagined when I played war in my backyard sandbox.

November 28, 1998
An early morning wake up call had Joe and I up at 7am for our ride to the air terminal.   We had gone to the store the day before and stocked our rooms with cereal and milk.  A few frosted flakes, and we were ready to go.

Our escort Sarah took the two of us and a van load of gear to NAS 2 (Naval Air Station) where we would meet our chopper. Some confusion with the Italian speaking security guard delayed us a little bit, but not very long.  A passport is like gold on trips like these.  Everyone wants to see it, and then hold on to it for collateral.

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An H 46 Helicopter landing on the USS Pensacola.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
At the air terminal we checked our bags at the gate, much like at a commercial airport, but our ride was an H46 Helicopter, not a plane. Three of these long dual bladed helos landed and we joined group of  passengers (called PAX) to load the plane.

Joe and I were pulled aside and sent to our own chopper.   It turned out that our ride was the VIP transport, not because we were on it… but because it carried the mail.

The flight to the ship took about 30-45 minutes and was breathtaking.  Dark skies broke open with beams of sun onto the Italian shoreline.  I started to see how the Ancient Romans were inspired to develop their mythical gods.

Our pilot and crew even did a few spins around the ship to allow for some aerial shots of the ship.

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A road weary reporter, Joe Flanagan plans out the next shoot.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
Upon landing on the USS Nassau, we were greeted to one of the warmest receptions I’ve had in the Navy.  Joe was given the XO’s (second in command of the ship) cabin, which included a office, desk and computer.  My accommodations were not so grand, but they were much better than I’ve had on many other ships.

Some shots of “mail call” and the sun setting on the flight deck and we broke for dinner.  There is much to be shot on this ship, and we’re finally able to get going.

November 29, 1998
Sunday wasn’t a day off for us.  It was the day of the “Holy Helo.” You have to love the names the Navy gives things, and this was no different.  The “Holy Helo” is the Sunday tradition of transporting the Navy Chaplain from the main ship in the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) to the smaller ships.  We hopped on the “Holy Helo” with Catholic Chaplain Dillon from the USS Nassau to the USS Pensacola.  The flight was only 15 minutes, as the ships were only a few miles apart in the Med.

Sitting through a Catholic Mass done very impromptu on the Mess Deck of a ship was interesting.  Without many of the luxuries of most churches, the priest made due with simpler procedures like having humans act as candle stick holders.

After lunch with the Captain and shooting around the P-cola, as it’s called, we returned to the flight deck to await our ride.  The “Holy Helo” returned to create a beautiful shot.  The placement I had on the flight deck had me shooting directly into the sun.  This isn’t the most advantageous camera angle, but something told me to be patient. helo1.JPG (62731 bytes)
The “Holy Helo” hovering over the USS Pensacola. [Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]

Just as I hoped, when the helo came in to land, it totally blocked the sun, giving an solar eclipse effect.  With the light spilling out from all sides, I don’t think I could have made a helicopter look anymore awe inspiring.   It definitely looked like a “Holy” Helo.

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Photographer Kevin Johnson, in the bowels of the ship looking for a shot.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
The evening back on the Nassau had us shooting an interactive segment of our show.  Before we left the states, we interviewed a sailors family.  We gave them a chance to talk to their sailor on tape; telling him how much they missed him, what they wanted for Christmas, and other special greetings.

Then tonight, we met up with the sailor, and played the tape for him, shooting his reaction.   The family was very funny, so the segment should be great.

After that shoot, we called it a night.  Flight ops tomorrow… Busy day.

November 30, 1998
Today was our big day of flight ops.  There are different periods in the day when the flight deck is full of activity; helicopters flying, crewmen running around, and jets taking off and landing.  It’s an impressive sight, seeing one of the most dangerous work environments on earth go without a hitch.
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Two H53 Marine Cargo Helicopters on the flight deck of the USS Nassau.
[Photo: JO1 Mike Raney]

Harrier jets are the most incredible aircraft on the ship.   They are able to take off from a short deck horizontally and then return to the ship hovering like a UFO.  I was in awe the first time I saw them, and they blew me away today, literally.

During the first launch I positioned myself on the flight deck, right next to the “runway.”  I underestimated the jet blast from the plane, and almost went toppling with my tripod.  Nothing was damaged, but it made me appreciate the flight deck even more.

To go along with the Christmas theme of the show, we decided follow the ship’s chaplain.  Every night he gives a prayer around 8 o’clock on the P.A. system.  I didn’t think shooting him on the bridge would be difficult, until I realized the ship was doing night flight operations, and could only have red lights up.   We threw around a number of ideas, but decided to go with the natural lighting. Using only a red desk lamp and a red flashlight held up by our escort, the SX camera did great and the shot worked.

After the shooting was done, I was able to work on B Roll Online.  The Automated Information Systems Division on the ship set me up with computer access to update the web site from the middle of the Med, and a Chief on the USS Pensacola set me up with some digital pictures. helo1.JPG (62731 bytes)
Photographer Kevin Johnson, standing on a loader to get the right angle for a shot.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]

Thanks to everyone for getting the site back online.

December 1, 1998
An early wake up had us on a chopper again on our way to the USS Pensacola.   It’s funny how we’ve been back and forth on the helos enough that the “Combat Cargo” guys who load the aircraft remember our names. We even have gotten to know the flight crews on the birds.

Upon arrival on the “P-Cola” we went in to meet our e-mail sailor.  A tradition of the “Navy Christmas” show is to have a “letter to home.”  This year I recommended we do the modern version.  Since many Navy ships today have e-mail, we shot a sailor sending an e-mail message to his wife.  We had him read it out loud, and then we’ll cut that together with shots of his wife reading the e-mail back in the states.  That will have to be shot once we return, but it should be a touching piece.

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Joe Flanagan and Kevin Johnson being lowered over the side of the USS Pensacola.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
The most exciting part of the day had us hanging by ropes off the side of the ship. No, they weren’t making us walk the plank, but they did send us off the ship in a smaller boat. We really wanted to get a shot of the ship from the water level.   Hopping from ship to ship via helicopter gives us plenty of opportunities to shoot aerials of the fleet, but it’s nice to see the impressive ships from the water level.

They offered and we went for it.

Luckily, the seas were calm, and we were able to get great shots of the Pensacola.  While we were out there, we did a few stand-ups and a short version of “Joe’s Job“. In this 13 News franchise, Joe takes on someone else’s job for the day, in this case he took over for the Boatswain’s Small Boat Operator.

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Joe Flanagan, Kevin Johnson and a Navy small boat division zipping around the Mediterranean Sea.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
He did a pretty good job of piloting the small boat, and didn’t even knock me over. A little spray in my face let me say I felt the waters of the Med, though.Afterwards we hooked back up to the crane on the ship and were hoisted about 80 feet in the air back into the safety of the big ship.

December 2, 1998

This morning was a pick up day.  We trudged around the ship searching for specific interviews.  The day the USS Nassau left the port in Norfolk, Joe found a few wives and girlfriends that were truly touched by the departure of their loved ones. So today we found their partners on the ship, to show what their job entails and to get their views on the separation. Each interview went very well.  All of the sailors worked in very different locations, and had varying views of the deployment.

Lunch today was the real treat.

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Joe Flanagan interviewing a sailor about being away at Christmas.
[Photo: JO1 Mike Raney]

We were invited down to the Well Deck to join the LCU command for a holiday lunch.  Along with aircraft on the flight deck, the USS Nassau is equipped with a well deck below that carries smaller ships, which in turn carry vehicles and troops.  I use the Russian Eggs as a description; one large ship, with smaller crafts inside, with vehicles inside, with soldiers inside… and so on.

The LCU‘s (Landing Craft Unit) are boats used to ferry the equipment to shore.  The crew of these crafts live totally self sufficient in the bottom of the ship.  They have their own berthing areas (beds),   their own galley (kitchen), and their own chefs.

Photographer Kevin Johnson shooting one of individual sailors moving jets in the hanger bay.
[Photo: JO1 Mike Raney]
So today was their early holiday meal.  Turkey, mash potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, greens, and an assortment of pies and cakes.  We shot the meal as part of our story, but figured we had to taste it to truly experience it.We ate like kings!

The food was wonderful, probably the best meal of the trip.  Considering we left the states on Thanksgiving Day, this became our holiday meal, too.  The only thing missing was the Thanksgiving Day football game to watch after the meal.

Our next project was following the ship’s Chaplain around.   He was in the Mess Decks (where enlisted sailors eat), talking to random sailors.   It gave us a good sense of morale on the ship, and the daily life of the “blue shirts” (enlisted sailors).

Morale on this ship is better than I’ve seen on any other ship.  Even though you always have a few people who can’t stand the Navy, most individuals are content with their conditions.

The moment we’ve been waiting for… One of the biggest traditions of the “Navy Christmas” story is Santa’s Gifts.  A few days before we left, Joe and I went to a house where a group of wives were meeting to wrap presents.  The other half of that story is Joe dressing up like Santa Claus and delivering those gifts to the sailors on the ship.  We gathered the guys in the Captain’s Shipboard Cabin, and had Santa storm in and deliver the gifts.

It was a cute segment.  Most of the gifts were “gag gifts” and had a little private jokes to them, but everyone had a good time.

Following the gifts, we shot a few brief shots of Santa wandering around the ship.  I was cruel and made Joe run up and down the ladders 3 or 4 times, but the shots worked well.

Tomorrow is the big day for the well deck.  They are planning to off load all the tanks, humvees, and other equipment for an exercise in the desert.

Reporter Joe Flanagan (in his Bob Hope pose) directing a group of Marines to do a Christmas Greeting, complete with a Marine “hoo-rah”
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
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Photographer Kevin Johnson getting shots on the deck of the USS Pensacola.
[Photo: HTC Robert Rambo]
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Take care and keep in touch.


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