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July 15, 2024

Desert Duck

By Mark W. Swarthout

I was standing the 8 to Noon, which meant that I had to be on deck at about 7 am to take over the watch. It was a fairly uneventful watch, the USS John Rodgers being assigned to drilling holes in the water out in the middle of the Persian Gulf, monitoring the Iran-Iraq conflict. As the off-going Junior Officer of the Deck, I was required to go down to the crew's mess and sample the lunch chow, then inspect the galley and validate all the temperature readings, making sure the reefers were cold enough and the wash water hot enough.

Lunch was fish sandwiches, but that is all I remember about it. I didn't feel particularly up to snuff at that point. I went and lay down on my rack for a few minutes until Turn To at 1300. At that point I went to the Communications Shack and worked on some of the paperwork associated with being the Communications Officer on a Spruance Class Destroyer. Shortly before knock off, I went in search of 'Big Doc,' the Chief Corpsman, and complained of not feeling well, my guts hurting.

He recommended some flat ginger ale and bed rest until my next watch, which would be the 20 to 24. I skipped dinner, but about 1800 was still feeling pretty bad. I went into the stateroom next door and asked one of my fellow officers, "Would you get the corpsman? I think I'm going to pass ... "

I woke in an unfamiliar bunk. It took a while to figure out where I was, but the face of Little Doc helped me realize that I must be in Sick Bay. I was also aware of pain in my right side, right below my ribs. Things were rather blurry for the next twelve hours. My arm was stretched out and strapped to a board, hyper extending my elbow. An IV was put into place and at some point they administered a pain killer, which was immediately followed by the dry heaves. Six hours later they woke me up and gave me another shot, again followed by the dry heaves.

I was vaguely aware of conversations. I caught glimpses of faces. The Commanding Officer stopped by, I remember being embarrassed that I only had on a T-shirt. There was one of the Communications Chiefs that stopped by to verify the combination to one of the safes that he was my backup on. There was talk of the Desert Duck and its eminent arrival to get me.

The pain kicked in again, but Big Doc said that he couldn't give me anything else for it, I'd have to wait for the Duck. A crowd of sailors moved into the small compartment and lifted me out of the bed, strapped a life jacket and a helmet on me and laid me out in a Stokes Stretcher. What followed was a long series of jerks, bumps and banging, accompanied by sailors swearing at their best. Suddenly bright light and the heat of the Middle East assaulted me. More bangs and jerks, but the swearing was drowned by the large whirling dervish that was the Desert Duck.

There is little I remember about the next hour or so. Vibration and noise as the "ten thousand parts moved in close formation, each made by the lowest bidder" that comprised the Desert Duck took me across the water. A face would stare down at me once in a while and mouth words I couldn't understand. I tried to smile back to let the crewman know I was still there. Finally a bump and the engine sounds started to abate. Hands quickly grabbed the stretcher and slide it out of the Duck's belly, and carried me across the hot tarmac. I caught a glimpse of a panel truck with the word "Ambulance" painted on it before being slid inside. The interior was completely bare, sheet metal sides and nothing there.

Arriving at a two story building, a clipboard was shoved into my hands and I scrawled my consent for whatever was to happen. At one point the gurney was wheeled out of an elevator into the sunshine and then into the second floor operating room.

I was woken before sunrise the next day by the call for prayers from the local mosques. The British surgeon stopped by to check things out and explain why I was going to have two appendectomy scars! It also explained the reason they had so much difficulty diagnosing my malady shipboard. I was the lucky one out of 500 that has an extra twist in their intestines, placing my appendix just below the ribs instead of near the hip. In addition to a nice neat scar in the expected place, I have a large 'zipper' going up and down, splitting my belly button.

There were very few English-speaking personnel there, but I had some interesting adventures with a couple of my fellow patients. The doctor kept me at the American Mission Hospital in Manama, Bahrain, for about five days to recover from the surgery. They had to make sure that I could climb stairs, so that when I got to the small compound of the US Navy located nearby, I could get to the 2nd floor cafeteria for meals! About ten days later I had recovered to the point where I could return to the ship on light duty, delivered back to the deck by the same Desert Duck that had snatched me from it to begin with.

The Desert Duck is the nickname given the US Navy Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Light 2 (HC-2) Detachment Two (Det Two), known as 'Desert Duck Airlines.' They operate out of the Manama, Bahrain airport providing search and rescue, re-supply (Mail Call!) and executive transport support to naval vessels assigned to the Arabian Gulf. The author was stationed aboard the USS John Rodgers from November 1981 to January 1984. The events took place in the summer of 1982.

-- Mark W. Swarthout

Article © Mark W. Swarthout. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-11-06
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