A huge cargo ship slowly sinking in the middle of a busy harbor is usually cause for alarm, but not if it's the 400-foot-long Motor Vessel (MV) American Cormorant. Partially submerging is how the American Cormorant offloads the cargo of ocean-going tugboats, landing craft, and equipment and supplies it carries for the Army. Once it is partly submerged, the cargo simply is floated off.
Downloading landing craft, three 100-foot tugboats, a gasoline barge, and a 100-ton floating crane from the American Cormorant was just one part of Operation Big Red '99. The 2-week exercise joined U.S. and British active and reserve component forces in one of the largest combined maritime and logistics over-the-shore (LOTS) exercises in nearly a decade. It was led by the U.S. Army Reserve's 143d Transportation Command, which is based in Orlando, Florida. Most of the exercise took place in southern England, at the Combat Equipment Base-North Atlantic (CEB-NA) which is located at the port town of Hythe.
The American Cormorant is one of several forward-deployed, pre-positioned, heavy-lift ships in the Army's inventory, and it is the only semisubmersible cargo transport vessel in the Army Pre-positioned Stocks system. When called upon, one or more of the Army's pre-positioned ships can get underway quickly and rendezvous at an appointed site with everything needed to turn a beach into an expedient operating port.
The American Cormorant is based at the British-owned island of Diego Garcia, which is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and is part of the Military Sealift Command's Maritime Pre-Positioning Ship Squadron Two. "Prepo" operations crews maintain the vessels; they can move a fully loaded ship from its strategic anchorage to a port, where an operating crew takes over and sails the ship to a tactical operations area. CEB-NA is responsible for the maintenance and support of the Army watercraft, vehicles, supplies, and materials-handling equipment carried aboard the forward-deployed pre-positioning ships. Each of the ships therefore returns to Hythe periodically so the watercraft and equipment aboard can be inspected and refitted or replaced as needed.
For Operation Big Red '99, a prepo crew departed from Diego Garcia and sailed the 72,000-ton heavy-lift ship through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea to Rota, Spain. An exercise operational crew boarded there and continued the cruise to England. During the 4-day journey from Spain, all the boats and equipment on the American Cormorant were prepared for offloading and operations. Underway preparations included unsealing, oiling, fueling, and testing the equipment, which had been sealed for some 2 years.
Once at Hythe, preparations for the offload began. On the evening of 7 June, the American Cormorant began the 10-hour process of partial submersion. By the next morning, the entire center cargo area of the bright red ship was under water. Army reservists were already aboard the American Cormorant's boats, ready to take control of them once they were afloat and clear of their moorings. Even as the American Cormorant continued to submerge, the first landing craft was pulled free by a commercial tugboat. By 1100, the ship had sunk low enough for all of the remaining landing craft, barges, and tugboats to float free. Only the top portions of the American Cormorant's bow and stern remained above water as the last tugboat pulled away.
All the boats then headed to Hythe and the nearby British military port of Marchwood to begin unloading forklifts, rough-terrain container handlers, and similar devices that had been stored on them. Since the equipment had been dormant and sealed for 2 years, some difficulties in operating all of it were to be expected. The American soldiers teamed with their British military and civilian counterparts to decide the best way to fix the problems, such as a jammed landing craft ramp and a failing engine on one of the tugboats. The combined British-American team found solutions to their real-world equipment challenges, which provided some of the most valuable training during Big Red '99.
Once everything was off the American Cormorant, the exercise began in earnest. Landing craft were used to move a large variety of U.S. and British equipment and supplies and many personnel. A barge crane was used to raise vessels out of the water for repairs. Port evacuations were conducted, in which all the equipment that had been unloaded was loaded back onto the landing craft and moved to another location. Mock chemical spills had to be dealt with appropriately.
Tugboats were used in a variety of missions, from towing vessels with engine trouble back to port to responding to a mock fire on a barge. In one real but unplanned event, a tugboat ran aground on a sandbar, and one of its sister tugs helped to pull it free.
Several aspects of the exercise tested interoperability. British soldiers, some of them reservists doing their annual training, participated in several missions. U.S. soldiers used the landing craft from the American Cormorant to move about 120 pieces of British military equipment to a landing site at the Browndown Training Area, some 18 miles away. Some U.S. soldiers received hands-on training on the SA_80 rifle, which is the British equivalent of the U.S. M16.
As Lieutenant Colonel Cory Youmans, of the 143d Transportation Command and commander of the task force, observed, the soldiers actually used "the landing craft, tugboats, forklifts, and all the equipment for real missions . . . [They received] real-world training . . . [and learned] a lot about how to do it even better in the future."
The American Cormorant was reloaded and departed Hythe in early September. A similar exercise might be conducted this year, when the MV Strong Virginian, another pre-positioning ship, comes in for its biennial inspection and maintenance. ALOG
Tony Johnson works in the Public Affairs Office of the Army Reserve Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia. He has a B.A. degree in speech and theatre from Newberry College in South Carolina and is a graduate of the Defense Information School Public Affairs Officer Course. He also took the photos for this article.
o The American Cormorant sits off the coast of southern England, ready to partially submerge so it can offload the vessels on board. The ship is the only semisubmersible cargo vessel in the Army Pre-positioned Stocks system.
o Above, with the American Cormorant partially submerged, the first landing craft is released from its moorings on the ship and pulls away. Note the bows of the tugboats to the right. At left, soldiers prepare to drive a cargo-container handler off one of the landing craft onto a landing ramp at Marchwood.
o At the port of Hythe, a barge crane slowly lifts a landing craft out of the water (left). It will place the boat on the dock, where it will undergo needed repairs. Above, soldiers pass supplies from a landing craft to a tugboat.
oAt top, three tugboats prepare to float off the partially submerged American Cormorant. One of the landing craft can be seen in the distance on the left as it heads for port. Above, a soldier of the 481st Transportation Company, USAR, from Mare Island, California, works to secure a line between the landing craft on which he works and a tugboat pulled up alongside. The tug responded to a mock engine failure and towed the landing craft back to port.