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A Streak Of Deadly Fire

It was like being a kid and tiptoeing up to a window for a cautious peek outside. The heavy steel door of the ship swung open, and I stepped out of a dimly lit gangway aboard the USS Philippine Sea onto an outside deck - and stumbled, almost blind in the darkness.

On ship, when they say it's dark out, they mean really dark. Not city-dark, broken by neon, or even like the night of a suburban street. The moon was behind a cloud, and you automatically started waving your hands in front of you, groping your way. This was dark.

I came out on deck partly to see the coast of Yugoslavia, and at moments when the moon broke through, there it was, with a heavy cloud bank hovering over it, looking forbidding and spooky.

My other reason was to listen to my shortwave radio, to catch up on the news.

Why, I hear you asking, would you need a shortwave radio to get the news, when you're right smack dab in the war zone, aboard one of the ships making the news, virtually at Action Central itself?

The odd fact is that a warship at sea can be an amazingly isolated place. Very little news of the outside world leaks in. Only a very few U.S. Navy vessels can watch TV broadcasts. Newspapers trickle aboard by mail, slowly and late.

A shortwave radio comes in very handy. All foreign correspondents pack one. If I went on assignment with only enough room in the bag for my radio or my toothbrush, I'd take the radio.

But finding the stations, fumbling with the radio on a dark weather deck, the water just a few feet below, rain pelting down, cold hands trying to press tiny buttons, doesn't always yield good results.

The first newscast I find is loud and clear - from Yugoslavia, whose coast is close. It wasn't exactly news I could use - Belgrade state radio, telling me that 11 NATO planes have been shot down thus far, as the brave Yugoslav armed forces fight their just battle against the U.S. aggressors. Not what you'd call a reliable source.

As it turned out, we journalists on board the USS Philippine Sea didn't need a radio to hear our main news of the night. In fact we needed earplugs, it was so loud. Sometime after midnight, we got summoned from our bunks, told to bundle up warmly and escorted out to what's called the fantail, at the stern of the ship. These were the best seats in the house, we were told, for a cruise missile launch.

We were given a series of warnings as launch time approached, reminded that it was going to be loud, bright and smelly - the stink being fumes of the booster rocket that lifts the Tomahawk cruise missile out of its silo to start its flight.

Finally a siren sounded briefly, a hatch popped open, and then it came - the sound of an express train, a streak of fire cutting the night sky, smoke pouring over watching reporters and leaving me choking for breath. The missile shot straight up, then arced over, the booster rocket dropped off, and a watching Navy officer muttered the military mantra, "tansition to cruise," as the Tomahawk started skimming across the sea.

As fireworks, it was great theater, and over astonishingly fast. But as the moon silhouetted the radar tower; as lightning split a thunderhead a few down miles to the north; as the Yugoslav coast loomed off in the distance, I couldn't help remembering that this pretty-looking bottle-rocket was winging a thousand pounds of high explosives at a target somewhere over that coastline - and that however justified this operation may be, that splashy, showy firecracker was likely to take real human lives when it went off.

Written by Jesse Schulman
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