I was at the airport shooting pictures to illustrate a Singapore Airlines story when the office rang to say there was an opportunity, if we could move quickly enough, to embed with the U.S. Naval relief operation heading to cyclone hit Myanmar.
Early the next morning I was aboard a U.S. Navy supply ship heading up the Malacca Strait. There were 8 journalists on board – writers, a BBC tv reporter and cameramen, and 3 photographers. It was a 2 day trip up to the USS Essex, and with little else to do on board, I photographed the crew preparing supplies which would be transferred when we arrived. With only experience of ferries to go on I’d feared getting horribly seasick – but was holding up okay, and excited about what we’d find when we got to the Navy ships.
We transferred to the Essex by helicopter. I quickly learned to use the word “helo” – pronounced “heelow” – as no one seemed to understand me when I said “chopper”. The supply ship had been crewed by ex-navy “civilian mariners”, but I’d been warned that things would be “different” on the real Navy ship. And they were.
If there’s one thing this experience has given me it is an indelible association between US Navy ships and disinfectant. Where the supply ship had been pretty crusty, the interiors of the Essex were sparkling clean – floors, walls, celings, everything – spotless. Every time I descended a set of stairs or a ladder (of which there were many) and my nose reached the same level as the deck, I’d get a heady whiff of disinfectant. A few days ago I visited the lavatories in a Singapore shopping centre and the smell took me right back to the Essex – I guess they were both using the same floor cleaner!
On the Essex and later on the Harpers Ferry, we were always “escorted” by either Navy or Marine media liasons. Although we were ”free to move about the ship,” the reality was slightly different. This was good in some ways – on occasions when I managed to evade my escorts, I got lost in the labyrinth of corridors and hallways on each deck and it took me forever to find my way. Hunt-for-Red-October lighting at night and a flashlight strapped to my head, I’d wander around in circles.