Ships of the Desert

or, "Camel off the port bow, Sir!"

By Mal Stylo

I just read a remarkable column called "First Impressions" by Dale Fetzer in the January/February 1991 issue of The Civil War News. In it, Fetzer tries to justify reenacting in light of Operation Desert Storm. Too bad he didn't just decide the wisest course of action concerning reenacting and real war is to follow the words of Br'er Rabbit: "Stay low and say nuffin'."

I don't object to the unintended humor in this column. I got a few laughs out of it - editorially speaking, that is. One sentence that was worth a good guffaw was (my italics), "I hope that, somehow, what we say and do here at home does indeed affect the soldiers and sailors thousands of miles away in the desert." Either he is slighting the thousands of sailors on the ships in the Persian Gulf by acknowledging a few shore-based support personnel, or he has taken the camel's nickname - "Ship of the Desert" - a bit too literally.

While not a student of military matters for 30 years, as the author of "First Impressions" states he is, I do have personal knowledge of where ships and sailors should be in relation to the desert. In 1971 as a lower grade petty officer on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf (a much less traumatic time to be there), I encoded a routine weather observation report for transmission to Fleet Weather Central in Norfolk, VA. Seems I transposed a digit in the ship's position and instead of placing the U.S.S. Sarsfield in the lower Persian Gulf I reported we were some hundreds of miles to the west in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. The rapid, and I must say sarcastic, demand for a position verification that Fleet Weather Central literally shot back clearly showed me that the U.S. Navy does not normally place its fighting units in the desert. (But just in case technology or the natural environment of ships has changed, Sharpen them Harpoons, me Buckos, for we sail in search of the Great White Camel!)

On that same trip, ol' DD-837 and I got caught in a sandstorm 40 miles off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It was night and I kept trying to figure out what was stinging my face and hands. The next morning the formerly haze gray U.S.S. Sarsfield was covered with yellow dust and had large piles of sand everywhere, from the bridge wings to the top of the radar mast. We were, however, still definitely at sea!

Whom could he mean?

Another interesting passage from the article reads as follows: "The wearing of the uniform can be made a mockery by those who wear it to play `Cowboys and Indians,' who wear it to attain rank and power, who wear it to fulfill themselves because their lives are not enriched enough otherwise and who wear the uniform to somehow make themselves more important than other men."

I think this paragraph overstates the things one obtains from reenacting; personally, I just look at reenacting as fun. I am also confident that it cannot be applied to anyone I reenact with. So whom could the author be referring to? Ah well, let us not tarry daily on this matter, but on to other subjects let us skip - mills of a different sort remain to be jousted with.