Local merchant mariner and SS Northern Lights shipmates were called to duty in war zone – and were proud to help out

Steve Dickson

For The News Tribune

Steve Dickson wears a chemical exposure suit aboard the SS Northern Lights on March 22, 2003.
Steve Dickson wears a chemical exposure suit aboard the SS Northern Lights on March 22, 2003. Courtesy Steve Dickson

THIS IS THE DIARY of Steve Dickson, a 49-year-old member of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Usually, his work takes him from Tacoma to Alaska and back. Earlier this year, however, the U.S. military chartered the SS Northern Lights to take a dozen Marines and a load of military supplies to Kuwait.

This is his account of the trip.

As a ship's chief steward Dickson is responsible for running the galley and ordering stores and supplies.

He describes his job as "kind of like the manager of a hotel, only with a much smaller clientele that has no other place to go for a while."

He's been sailing for 13 years after being a chef in private restaurants from Sun Valley to Prescott, Ariz. He lives in Tacoma with his wife, Sandee.

"The first time I saw a ship steaming off toward the far sunset, I knew this was the life for me," Dickson said.

Overseeing the trip was the Northern Lights' 45-year-old captain, Jack Hearn, who lives in Lewes, Del., with his wife and five children.

As part of his duties, Hearn keeps the captain's log, part of which is quoted below. Dickson took the photographs shown on these pages.

In one entry Hearn talks about the men aboard the Northern Lights and their trying voyage:

"I have an ordinary crew, regulars, and mostly seasoned in the rugged Alaska trade. Many are foreign born, quite a few are of Arabic heritage. They've done well, worked hard and given whatever they could to help this cause. This is where the crew of this ship wanted to be - right here with these men and women. As professional merchant mariners and as Americans, we feel honored to be here."


The SS Northern Lights normally runs between Tacoma and Anchorage, Alaska, supplying that state with necessary items on a weekly basis. This run is different: We are taking military supplies to the Persian Gulf.

We are part of the massive military buildup in response to the perceived threat from Iraq and Saddam Hussein. We're carrying rolling stock such as trucks and Humvees and other heavy equipment, and containers for the U.S. Marine Corps.

We are also taking 12 Marines along. They came aboard in San Diego after the cargo was loaded Feb. 9. Most are young reservists from around the country and are well-trained and polite. This is the first time most of them have been aboard a ship, and they are good passengers. Since the seas have been calm, there hasn't been much seasickness among them.

They have been learning shipboard lingo - the floor is called the deck, and the wall is a bulkhead; left is the port side, and right is the starboard. They already know the salty language.

We have been en route now for several days and will make very brief stops along the way for fuel and stores.

We're going through Southeast Asia and will be heading through pirate-infested waters. (Yes, even in this day, there are pirates around. These are not swashbuckling adventurers. They are very violent and strike quickly in the night, usually from sailboats.)

The trip should take between 25 and 28 days.

The officers and crew aboard this ship are a diverse lot, and there are several unlicensed fellows from the Middle East, mainly Yemen. They are good seamen and shipmates and men of peace.

Asked how he felt about the situation in Iraq, one Yemeni said, "Nobody in the Arabian countries is for Saddam Hussein, but when war comes, he'll be safe and women and children will be dead." That is the consensus among the Muslim crew members.

Most of us are family men away from our loved ones for long periods. Some of us are divorced or have been married more than once, trying to find the right person.

All of us aboard have something in common: We have plans. Plans to return to our families, plans to return to jobs we left to serve our country, plans to live. When you make plans you must also have hope, and no one hopes for war.

At any rate we are 37 souls on the way to the Persian Gulf, steaming across the Pacific.

When a ship is at sea, a routine settles in and everyone goes about their duties rather automatically.

The mates and AB's (able-bodied seamen) stand their watches on the bridge, steering the ship and watching for traffic. The chief mate is in charge of deck and cargo operations. The day workers are with the bos'n working on deck. In the engine control room, engineers and oilers monitor machinery that hums constantly.

The galley is busy with food preparation and readying meals. That's so important to the morale of the crew.

The captain is in command and must manage the whole operation while also dealing with the pressures of navigation in unfamiliar waters, dealing with pilots who can't speak English very well and with foreign customers and immigration officials who demand special treatment.

Our captain is steady and experienced and stays calm under pressure, which is very important.

We are all well-trained and are regularly drilled and must pass many courses to work at sea.

American-flagged ships are by far the safest and most regulated in the world. The Seafarers International Union is the largest representative of U.S. merchant mariners. The union has a long tradition of delivering cargo vital to U.S. interests during times of peace and war, and I am proud to be a member.

The Northern Lights is just shy of 800 feet in length with a beam of almost 100 feet. She usually carries 40-foot trailers and vehicles on the run to Alaska and is now being chartered by the Military Sealift Command for this operation.

This ship is propelled by a steam plant, which makes her faster than diesel-driven ships, with a top speed of almost 30 knots. She was built in 1974 by Sun Shipbuilding in Chester, Pa.

March 12

We made it safely past Singapore. The captain was busy on the bridge because of the large amount of traffic.

The Marines patrolled the ship with their weapons. They have a lot of time on their hands, and this helps keep them active. We all stared wistfully as we passed old Singapore, thinking about going ashore and all that that entails. Some have been there before and it is a great port to visit.

It was a hazy day and we could just make out the skyscrapers in the distance. We were only 10 hours in the two fueling ports, so shore time was short and valuable.

That's mostly the way it is now, with containerization and short turnaround time in ports. It used to take many days to load and unload ships and the opportunities were great to take time off in exotic ports of call. Now every container and tanker terminal looks the same and shore time is measured in hours.

The Marines were able to go ashore and do some shopping and call home. We also have e-mail aboard, so communication with loved ones is available.

March 15

We made the Indian Ocean and are steaming up the coast. We're moving along quite well. The weather is clear and very warm, and seas are calm and beautiful.

Every morning the watch-stander brings down the "newspaper," which is actually one page long with headlines concerning world events. After reading about the situation in the gulf today, I figure war will be declared March 18 without a United Nations resolution.

March 18

It looks like crunch time for Saddam. Marshal Bush has given him 48 hours to leave town. We will be entering the Persian Gulf this evening. We picked up a small Greek navy ship as an escort and will arrive on the morning of the 20th, just as the war will begin.

We've been issued CBRD (chemical, biological, radiological defense) gear, gas masks and exposure suits after a training session with the Marines demonstrating the proper procedures for donning the gear. If a gas attack occurs, we'll have to wear the outfits until we can be decontaminated.

The suits are trousers with suspenders and a jacket with a hood. They look like fatigues, but are heavier. They come with rubber gloves and liners and covers for shoes.

The crew was inoculated against smallpox and anthrax in San Diego, so we are as ready as possible for this scenario, except for being unarmed. The Marines have been patrolling the ship with M-16's and we in the galley have frying pans. Some ships carry a limited supply of weapons. Some of us, including me, have had small-arms training.

Everyone is apprehensive about coming into this port, especially since the war will be so close.

March 19

From captain's diary:

The ship navigated the remaining miles to Port Ash Shuay'bah, Kuwait, at slow speeds due to heavy shipping traffic. The Northern Lights maneuvered to avoid scores of ships departing the impending war zone of the Persian Gulf.

We passed an aircraft carrier in full operation, launching jets and later, receiving returning aircraft. A naval helo carrier, restricted in her ability to maneuver, requested the Northern Lights turn away. We suspected these ships were already in full battle operation.

Though the moon was full and bright, visibility was reduced to less than two miles due to the regional dust storms.

The radio traffic was awful. Coalition warships repeatedly called merchant vessels to identify themselves. Local Arab fishermen and oil-field workers on the VHF screamed "cat-calls" and taunts and jokes. The most laughable was a raspy, accented voice calling, "George Bush, George Bush, George Bush. ... This is Saddam Hussein. I want to talk to you!"

March 20

From Dickson's diary:

We arrived this morning but can't see much. (Every container port looks the same.) We are near a refinery with flame erupting from several vent pipes. There are a few other ships here. They look to be bulk carriers and small tankers.

From captain's diary:

Arrival was 8:30 a.m. The Iraq deadline had been expired for 4 1/2 hours.

The ship was berthed in an area of high risk for a terrorist attack or an industrial incident. A SCUD-NBC attack was also possible.

The USNS Peliliu was berthed just forward of the Northern Lights. These were the only two American ships in port.

From Dickson's diary:

Right after lunch a siren sounded, followed by the ship's emergency signal. We soon found out that meant some kind of enemy missile had been fired, and we all mustered in the crew mess hall with our gas masks and chemical exposure suits on.

This was no drill, and it happened four more times today. We were actually under attack.

Each time we gathered for a headcount and sat nervously until the all-clear was given, averaging about a half-hour. It looks to be a long stay if this keeps happening.

The stores I ordered arrived during supper. The chandler sent fresh milk with a four-day expiration date, but the produce was good. That was surprising because receiving stores in a foreign port can be a nightmare. Sometimes you get some funny-looking products.

Two shifts of cargo handlers will work 12 hours a day until the ship is unloaded. Everyone is very tense and nervous. We all just hope this operation goes smoothly without problems.

March 21

From captain's diary:

1:25 a.m.: SCUD-gas alert. Crew dresses in CBRD protective clothing, keeps masks ready and with them at all times. Forget showers, I am required to tell them. Keep your gear on, masks ready.

3:30 a.m. SCUD-gas alert. Military forces aboard ship and within running distance of ship use interior ship's spaces for shelter.

6 a.m. Scud-gas alert. This attack delayed departure of the USNS Peliliu. The Peliliu departed when able as the SS Northern Lights remained the sole American ship in the port. The Northern Lights was now recognized as the only shelter by nearby military personnel. Many sought relief aboard, including meals, showers and whatever else the ship could share and provide.

From Dickson's diary:

At 8:30 a.m. the third mate came to the galley with my sick call slip. (My eyes have been bothering me for a few days and I need to get them checked.) I rode to the clinic tent at a staging area near the port with a corpsman and found out the blast from the night before had been a Scud missile being intercepted by one of our missiles over the port.

This place is a sprawling tent city with small, reinforced bunkers dotting the landscape. They're to be used when the sirens sound. That happened twice while I was at the camp.

It is bleak and windswept, with a parade of vehicles constantly circling the perimeter. I waited there until 11:30 and caught a ride with the mail convoy to another military area about 30 minutes away.

We traveled most of the way on a paved highway, which was nearly deserted. There were many U.S. military vehicles, including Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the back and manned by soldiers. Our destination turned out to be a huge staging area with thousands of troops and tents and trucks. I saw a British camp with their Land Rovers and exotic machine guns.

Most of the soldiers were carrying weapons, some with shotguns, pistols and knives. I forgot to bring my frying pan.

While I was in the clinic there were three more siren episodes with the gas masks. An Army staff sergeant brought his platoon in for their next anthrax shots. While they were waiting he told them how important it is to stay together and look out for each other and be alert all the time. He told me later they were leaving the next day for the Iraqi border.

After that I saw the Army optometrist, who said cataracts were developing and my eyes were going through some changes. He said they will have to be checked more thoroughly soon.

Since there was time before the medic returned, I walked around and saw the post exchange, which was a tent, and an outdoor food court that consisted of a Baskin Robbins on wheels as well as Burger King and Pizza Inn. All were closed because of the war and were eerie reminders of home. A few tables were scattered around in the windblown sand.

As I continued back to the clinic I saw so many troops walking and driving around. I was struck once again by how young the soldiers are and what they may face very soon. I heard a radio and listened to the Voice of America as they spoke of a helicopter crash and the first American combat fatality, a Marine in Iraq.

I rode back with the medics to the port near Kuwait City. There must be at least two vehicles during any movements and they must contain an armed soldier with the weapon locked and loaded.

On the way back I asked how long they'd been in the area and both had been here for about a month. They had been activated just before then and had been doing a lot of training exercises. Up until March 20 things had been rather routine, but they were not afraid to admit they were scared, but excited now, to be in a "hot" area.

I was, too. Mostly scared, not too excited. I can't imagine what it must be like on the front line, moving toward Baghdad. I was extremely happy to make it back to the ship.

From captain's diary:

10:15 p.m. Scud-gas alert. No warning siren given to alert personnel to seek shelter. The percussion blast of nearby missile explosion moves entire ship at her berth. No damage or injuries occur.

Ship's crew and military personnel on the dock witnessed the missile strike and over 100 personnel run the entire length of the pier for shelter within the ship.

Chief mate Rich Cadigan submitted the following: "You could feel the concussion from the blast. Everyone froze. Someone yelled, 'Gas, gas, gas' and that started the stampede to the gangway. I felt I represented the Northern Lights well by coming in third in the 'Race to the Ship.'"

The sudden attack alerted us all that Scud strikes could occur at any time, without warning to seek shelter or don gear. Shipboard security is again elevated with Marines armed and ready on several stations on the ship.

Orders are given to the Marines as follows: "This ship will not be a soft target. If you see someone that might hurt this ship or someone on this ship, you kill them."

March 22

From Dickson's diary:

The day dawned brighter and with a freshening wind. The military cargo handlers should finish today and then we'll head out.

From captain's diary:

9:40 a.m. Chemical alert. Once again, no siren alerts the port. A car drives down the dock blasting three short honks on the horn, repeatedly. The signal is recognized, the driver is wearing a gas mask. Then the port sirens sound. Personnel in all areas calmly drop their tools, don gas masks and move to shelters.

Cargo is almost completely discharged.

The crew has adapted to wartime conditions within 48 hours. There are no complaints of fatigue though the overworked crew has not slept peacefully for days. There are no complaints of danger though the attacks have been steady. Not one man has suggested leaving the port until the area is secured and deemed safe.

From Dickson's diary:

The Marines who came over with us came by the galley in the afternoon and thanked everyone. We wished them all good luck and to be safe.

Most of them are going into combat. One sergeant said, "I'll plug one for ya." I wondered if he knows how it feels to kill a man. I hope he doesn't have to find out and I hope they all return home safely and can get on with their young lives.

From captain's diary:

Camaraderie with military personnel is extremely friendly. The quarters are open to military visitors and rooms are left available to provide showers. Hats are traded, desert camouflage hats for ballcaps. Presents are given, even items as small as a soft drink or a package of cookies.

One of the soldiers approached me, "Sir, are you the captain?" "Yes," I said. We shake hands. "Thank you for being here with us," he said.

From Dickson's diary:

We got under way at 6 p.m., and are headed for the Suez Canal. Everyone is very relieved to be away from Kuwait. I called my wife and told her we are all safe and headed away from the Persian Gulf.

March 23

We're out of the gulf. Everyone is in much higher spirits after leaving and getting some rest.

March 25

During breakfast, we anchored off one of the states called the United Arab Emirates. We had three small U.S. Navy boats patrolling around the ship during the stay. The fuel barge tied up in the early afternoon and we took on fuel and left about midnight.

March 26

We learned we'll be transiting the Suez Canal on April 2, and we slowed considerably so we don't get there too soon. We'll have another escort to the Red Sea near Aden and should pick them up March 29. The USS Cole was attacked in that area, so it could be hazardous all the way through the Suez.

There is no word yet on our destination after the shipyard. The captain said there's a 30 percent chance we'll go to a European port and pick up more cargo, or else head back to the States and load there. He did find out we will be dry-docking for three to five days.

It was quiet aboard the ship since the Marines are gone and the voyage to the Suez Canal was nice and peaceful.

April 2

We transited as scheduled and the three Egyptian pilots - like at many ports outside the United States - each received their swag: Marlboro cigarettes, candy bars, soap and shampoo. This is called "baksheesh" and if it is not given, the pilot will make the transit take much longer than necessary. Ships line up early in the mornings to proceed through the canal.

We reached the Mediterranean in the evening and were further out of harm's way.

April 6

As my contacted time aboard the vessel was finished, I flew to Sea-Tac Airport via London.

It is truly great to be home and I hope everyone serving our country overseas can know that feeling soon.