“The Whale’s Asshole & Other ‘Tails’:

45 Days Aboard The USNS Mercy”


Willie Goldman

July 4, 2005

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for this first time.”

-T.S. Eliot

“The journey’s the thing.”


“Be Careful What You Wish For”

“Do you have any camping gear? Sleeping bags, backpacks, those sorts of things?”

My mind was still drunk with anxiety at the news I just received. As my eyes swept the room, I took mental inventory of my gear: a bag of trail mix, a barely working flashlight, and my childhood sleeping bag - so old it still had “Willie” written in it in my mom’s handwriting. So of course the only response I could give the Admiral on the other end of the phone was, “Yeah, got it all right here.”

“Okay then, we’ll see you at Pearl Harbor in 12 hours.” Click.

Oh man, now I’ve done it. Still awash with incredulity, I called my family first, and let them know I’d be gone for an indeterminate amount of time, “Call us as soon as you get there my baby,” my mom said. Baby? I’m 32. “I don’t think they have phones on board, but I’ll do my best.” My friends offered up a broad spectrum of well-wishes, everything from “Have a blast!” to “Don’t get raped.” Comedians.

I scrambled like mad, plowing through some of the worst rain L.A. had seen in years, and bought everything I thought I might need: sunscreen, sunglasses, new socks, Dramamine, some DVDs, etc. Raced home, jammed everything into three bags, and grabbed some sleep for a few hours before heading for the Burbank airport. I had never been to Hawaii before, and from what I understood, we’d only be there for 24 hours before leaving the island. At least I could finally check another state off my "states visited" list – hell, by the time this was over, I’d end up crossing entire countries off my list.

While I *was* extremely nervous, I couldn’t have been happier to be leave the water logged streets and gunmetal grey skies behind. Just as we were taking off, I noticed the sun finally making a much welcome appearance over Los Angeles. The rays pouring into the cabin had a momentary tranquilizing effect, and added to my delight in having a few hours of rest over the Pacific. But just as I closed my eyes, it all hit me at once:

Is this really happening? What am I doing? What were these Navy people going to think of me? How would I be received? I’ve never even been on a real cruise before, let alone a Navy ship. Am I really up for this? How did I get here?

The quick and dirty version is that I had written a treatment for a television show pilot set aboard one of the U.S. Navy’s two hospital ships. In the real world, the USNS Comfort on the East coast had seen a lot more action than her San Diego based sister ship, the USNS Mercy. A week after the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, an international relief effort coalition was formed, the American arm of which was called Operation Unified Assistance. This prompted Washington to send the Mercy on one of her first real missions in years (the war in Iraq fell under the Comfort’s AOR, or area of responsibility).

Because we had already been working closely with the Pentagon on their assistance with the project, they called and asked if I wanted to do a ride along. Less than 24 hours later, I was on a plane over the Pacific trying to catch up with the ship on her way to “somewhere” in Indonesia.

It’s now months later now, and as friends and family continue to ask what the whole trip was like, I can never manage to find the right words. Words and clichés like, amazing, unbelievable, life-changing, etc. ring hollow. So much happened in such a short amount of time, there’s no way to reduce it into simple conversation. The best I can come up with is that the entire journey was two very different trips in one. The first, was just me getting used to “Navy Life.” I’ve never been at sea over night, have never been on any sort of real cruise, so all of this was astoundingly new.

Unfortunately, the ship is relatively slow, even at top speed, so there was a long stretch of time (and ocean) where there was not much to do. Perfect for me, as this gave me plenty of opportunity to meet everyone under non-stressful circumstances. If I had to use one word, to describe this leg, it would simply be, “fun.” The people were great, the ocean (by day and night) was mesmerizing, I had plenty of time to write, tour the ship, conduct interviews, and get to know everyone. Exactly the sort of research I needed to be doing. After cutting loose after our arrival in Singapore, and on-loading a few hundred docs and nurses, the atmosphere began to change. In just a few days, we’d reach our destination, and even thought we’d seen pictures and videos, no one knew what expect.

For me, the second half of our journey began the instant we woke up just a few hundred feet off the port bow of the USS Abraham Lincoln. It’s one thing to see a carrier on TV, on Pier 86 in New York, or even off Coronado Island in San Diego. But to see one here, live, commencing flight ops -- it was a searing jolt of reality. If that wasn’t enough, there was a land mass just behind it; we were here, Indonesia.

While the trip here (from an outsiders perspective) was fun and light-hearted, and I knew things were going to be different once we were here -- well, the entire tone of the mission was about to change. It was time for this crew to go to work. I’ll leave the summary of what happened once we got there to the text below, but, as a final thought, well, there was a large period in my life when I seriously doubted if real heroes existed anymore. Now, for the rest of my life, I’ll always know they do.

So back to the question, “What was it like?” It’s too impossible to sum up quickly, so I’ll let you read for yourself.

The following are the emails I sent home from the mission.

email one

“Hello From The Pacific”


Subject: Hello From the Pacific

Date: January xx, 2005 8:38:20 AM PST

To: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hey, we just got our computers up and running, here’s my first update (we’re currently two days out of Pearl Harbor, headed towards Singapore):


Day 2 (January 12, 2005)

I'm sitting here in main admin, wondering what the best way into this is? How do I put into words something that is so vast in scope, somuch bigger than I ever imagined -- without being, well, too dramatic (especially since you all know just how dramatic I am).Since this isthe first time I've been able to sit in front of a computer in days (a record for me) let me just start with a recap of the past 24 hours. Yesterday was...

Day 1 (January 11, 2005)

I flew into Oahu from Burbank, so glad to leave the water logged streets and gunmetal grey skies behind.It had been, what? One day out ofthe previous 19 that we had actually seen the sun? Of course as we took off,the sun was finally starting to come out, and I hope it's cleared up since. The flight was fine, landing in Hawaii was pretty breathtaking – we banked over Diamond Head, crossed the beach at Waikiki, and touched down at Hilo.

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing that hit me was the air itself -- it was alive with a delicious scent unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. At the terminal, I waited outside the baggage claim next to the Spam & Papaya stand, when a white van with a US Navy logo pulled up curbside. That logo - I held my breath - here we go.

ALieutenant from the PAO (Public Affairs Office jutted his head out the window, his eyes lit with a magnetic severity as he asked, "You’re the writer from L.A., right?"


“Hey, how you doin' - yeah, hop on in! You know, I'm a writer too." Me: "No, really?"

Him: "Yup, I've read all the Ted Field books on screenwriting." Me: "Syd Field?" Him: "Yeah, him too. Check this out, I just finished my first screenplay."

"Oh that's great, congratulations. They say the first one -- "

"Wanna know what it's about?" Me: "Uh, yeah, sure. Hit me."

"It's about a serial killer." Me: "Wow, sounds fresh."

"Wait, it gets better - it all takes place in the future - it's about an *outer space* serial killer. What do you think? Do you like it?" Channeling my inner Paris Hilton, the only response I could muster was, "That's hot."

Luckily Pearl Harbor is about 5 minutes from the airport, sowe arrived at the base in no time, and headed straight for "The Pier." The Pier is just what you think itis, butabout 40 times larger. The sight that unfolded outside the windshield halted both our thoughts -- the van crested a rise, and out past the Arizona memorial, through the loading cranes, and beyond the “grey hulls,” there she was -- my new home.


It's so hard to say exactly what it's like when you see one of these ships for the first time. I remember the look on Mike and David's faceswhen we visited the Mercy in San Diego --hugedoesn't describe it, majestic comes close, but it's more than that... Maybe it's the fact the ship is bone white from stem to stern --or the gigantic red crosses painted on the sides -- reminding you that ship isn't about war, or killing, or imposing America on the world -- this ex oil-tanker (there's some irony there I'm sure) is sentin to heal, to care, to help. The name's Mercy and Comfort so appropriate this ship and crew. There's a plaque here in main admin just outside the captain's office that reads "steaming to assist" -- can't really say it any better.

Anyway, after the Lieutenant took me to the ship and we parted ways, he called back over his retreating shoulder, "Good luck man, remember: space serial killer - think about it." As I filed that thought in the appropriate drawer in my head, I turned to face a titanic steel wall of white at my eye level.

To actually get on board, I had to climb a huge gangway, and then cross a gantry about 4 stories high. Once inside, my bags and I were searchedbythe Marines and the MAA (Masters At Arms He-Man fans) - remind me to never bitch about airport security again. While I waited for them to finish laughing at my Yoda boxers, my new, ship-based escort arrived: Lieutenant Commander Wiederholt (I’m going to write a paper on last names in the armed services). Like everyone I had met so far, she was great: warm, welcoming, friendly. As she took me into the ship, she said our first stop would be Main Admin. This is where I’d check in, get issued an ID, lifeboat number (#13 of course), and assigned a berthing area that I’d be sharing with seven others.

Main Admin is the center of all hospital related activity on the ship; imagine a100 foot by 100foot bullpen with about 20 workstations in the center. Around the perimeter are various offices: the Executive Officer, or “XO’s,” office, the main conference room, the mediacenter (aSMALL television studio with two DVcams, and an Adobe Premiere workstation), the MAA staging room, an I.T. room (it's hilarious how no matter where you go, these I.T. guys are all like Jimmy Fallon on SNL).

Along the rear wall are 5large cubicles: the chaplain's office, the PAO's office (my temporary office),the JAG and NCIS office (we had two lawyers onboard, and a legal assistant), a "training" office, and a "patient care" office. Thedesks and everything else were bolted to the floor: computers, lockers, Xerox machines. All the office chairs have duct-tape surrounding the wheels to keep them from rolling with the ship (which is kind of funny, cause a few aren't, so you’d witness people slowly rollback and forth across the floor asthe ship moves).

Everyone has a ton of questions about who I am, what we're trying to do with the show, etc. But they're all enthusiastic. After a quick night out in Waikiki (everyone had to report back to the ship by midnight), it was time to get underway. I woke to the sound of the engines thrumming, and went “up top” to watch Hawaii grow smaller on the horizon behind us. Because the Mercy is a converted supertanker, it rides light and high since it carries no oil. This gives the ship a great deal of freeboard: the area above the waterline that acts as a giant sail -- pushing the ship to and fro.

It was without the sheltered harbor of Hawaii that I first experienced seasickness.

Overall the ship’s movement could range from “dead calm” to “kill me please.” Well, there was a major storm in between ourselves and Guam, so we have to steer around it. Easy enough with all the high-tech navigational gear on board, but you can’t escape something that big without feeling some of its affects -- in this case: massive sea swells that would shotgun into the ship’s hull. About every five to seven seconds we’d SLOOOOOWWWWLLY dip from side to side, or stem to stern. (This produced a strange symphony of sounds from locations unknown: screeches, grinding, scratching, banging, clanging, rolling and bowling.)

When it was like this, I was relatively okay, as were most of the others - but apparently these swells only rated a 3 on a scale of 10 (remember the Willie Goldman seasickness numbering scale for future emails) -- and they were about to increase in frequency and severity. You know the story about Eskimos having close to 100 different words for snow? Well, I was told to expect some "weather" ahead – and I quickly learned that "weather" also has multiple meanings. On the Mercy, “Weather” is some sort of Navy code word for "You're Going to Puke Till You Bleed and Beg For the Sweet Release of Death."