Opening Night Aboard the U.S.S. Constellation

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It was time to switch shifts when word came down. The night crew aboard the U.S.S. Constellation was heading off to their racks, and a fresh lot lining up for breakfast before they came to work. Many of the sailors had no idea that strikes on Baghdad had begun. Those who had been awake during the night had been awaiting 4 a.m. — the deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq. Every so often, many took a break from their regular work to peek at the dark sky, attempting to spot a cruise missile whizzing by. But it was cloudy, and even the planes were barely visible.

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For the sailors aboard this aircraft carrier, war preparations had flipped into high gear soon after the President announced Saddam's deadline to leave Iraq. Now, bombs are being assembled at three times the regular output. The bomb farm on the flight deck is teeming; rows and rows of the smart GSM guided missiles are now stacked on the hangar deck. Many of the planes that took off last night were loaded with these JDAMS.

By 4 a.m., when the deadline passed, orders to begin the assault had still not come down the ranks. For many of the commanders at sea, it was a classic "all dressed up and nowhere to go" scenario. But that wouldn't last for long.

At 5:15 a.m. the U.S.S. Constellation battle group fired its Tomahawk missiles. Dawn had just broken over the sea, although the horizon was blurred from a dust storm the night before. It took less than an hour for those missiles to reach Baghdad and explode upon their possible "decapitation" targets. Operation Iraqi Freedom had begun.

But it didn't begin the way most thought it would; this was not the "shock and awe" campaign that many had expected. Admiral Barry Costello had told journalists earlier that the "attacks plans are laid for the first days of the war." But what happened on March 20 was not the start of that plan. "The map we had talked about has not yet commenced," Costello then confirmed on Thursday morning.

Instead, we witnessed a precision attack aimed at Saddam and his ruling regime. The missiles came from just two cruisers, two destroyers and two submarines based in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Most of them were sent to specific targets based upon recommendations from intelligence agencies, according to the Admiral. From the U.S.S. Constellation battle group, the missiles were fired from the U.S.S. Bunker Hill, a cruiser, and the U.S.S. Milieus, a destroyer. Another cruiser, U.S.S. Cowpens and a destroyer, U.S.S. Cook, also fired Tomahawks. Two EA-6B Prowlers, from the Lancers squadron of the U.S.S. Constellation, participated in the operation as well. The Prowlers support strike aircrafts by jamming enemy radar, electronic data links and communications.

As the strikes on Baghdad commenced the U.S.S. Constellation carrier continued to launch sorties into the demilitarized zone. The Constellation Air Wing took out 54 sorties. Of them, 24 were strike sorties, targeting "military and communication facilities." These strikes had been planned in advance—before war was announced—in retaliation to surface to air fire by the Iraqis. These missions are part of the on-going effort to soften up southern Iraq making it easier for allied troops to begin their march on Basra and Baghdad