Supercarrier, George C. Wilson

Macmillan, 1986, 273 pages, C$10.00 hc, ISBN 0-02-630120-2

From almost any point of view, few things on Earth are as awesome as a modern airplanes carrier ship. Easily classifying as some of the largest objects every built by humankind, carriers are supposed to be ships, cities, airport, repair shop, warmachines and political instruments. Most of them include everything needed to host 3,000+ men: Chaplains, a newspaper, a TV station, huge cafeterias… In short, aircraft carriers are an ideal subject for non-fiction books.

Given the already-established market for military books (fiction or non-fiction), the idea of a documentary account of life on an airplanes carrier fits right in the publishing field. That is, as long as a sufficiently knowledgeable person can be persuaded to put in the research time.

On paper -and that’s all that counts, after all-, George C. Wilson appears to be an ideal man for this project. The cover blurb describes him as the chief defense correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of at least two other military-themed non-fiction books. He obviously has the skills, and at the very least, one can say he had the motivation to do some serious research on his subject: For seven months, Wilson accompanied the crew of the USS John F. Kennedy on a typical deployment, leaving behind civilian life, a job, family and wife.

As it turned out, the September 1983-May 1984 deployment of the Kennedy turned out to anything but typical. Originally intended to sail for the peaceful Indian Sea, it was re-ordered toward Lebanon shortly after beginning its tour. There, in the aftermath of the US Marines compound terrorist bombing of 1983, planes from the Kennedy would enter combat over the skies of Lebanon. Five planes were lost during that tour: three crashed in the sea, one had a mid-air collision, and one was downed by enemy fire. Three pilots dies. A group of sailors asked to be let off the carrier.

But that’s the big picture. Wilson spends as much time describing the minute human mechanisms that make it so that the thousands of men aboard the Kennedy can effectively work together. At the top, of course, there’s the captain, purposefully maintaining the image of aloofness and professionalism fit for someone cumulating the equivalent positions of captain, mayor and father confessor. There’s the hands-on executive officer (XO), constantly worrying about how to implement the captain’s policies. There are the heads of specialized departments: Propulsion, weaponry, maintenance, aviation. But there’s also the chaplains, master chiefs, psychologists and other personnel that ensure that thousands of men can spend seven months together without cracking up.

Chapter after chapter, Wilson takes up through normal carrier operations: Russian airplanes interceptions (“Bear Hunts”), shore leave (in Rio de Janeiro, no less), VIP visits… Wilson also climbs in the cockpit for descriptions of naval aviation: Combat Air Patrols, Antisubmarine warfare, bombing, refuelling…

The closest equivalent to Super Carrier is Stephen Coonts’ The Intruders, which was a novel about a naval pilot on a carrier tour of duty shortly after the Vietnam war. Like The Intruders, Super Carrier also falters during its second half. But unlike the Coonts novel, which suddenly creaked under the sudden imposition of a ludicrous late-minute plot, Super Carrier suffers from excessive military theorizing by Wilson, as he uses the subject as a springboard to explore various controversies in American military doctrine. While this must have been of some pointed interest at the book’s release, it’s also the part of Wilson’s account that has aged the most in the fifteen years since original publication.

This caveat aside, Super Carrier remains a good read on a fascination subject. Wilson was incredibly lucky to be on such an eventful deployment, and he was talented enough to be able to describe in clear terms what happened for laymen. The result should be worth tracking down for anyone interested in the intricacies of naval military operations.

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