One U.S. Navy secret weapon in the Red Sea? Sailor morale

June 24, 2024
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Editor’s Note: The Pentagon on Saturday said that the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier operating in the Red Sea and at the center of America’s response to Houthi attacks, had begun its journey home and would soon be replaced by the USS Theodore Roosevelt.


When the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower set sail last October, the sailors on board initially expected they would be deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. There, they would help prevent aggression in the region in the wake of Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, and they anticipated taking port calls in places like Croatia. 

Instead, sailors aboard the Eisenhower and its accompanying warships have spent almost eight months at sea at a relentless combat pace, shooting down missiles and drones fired by Houthi fighters, and attacking launch sites in Yemen — all from the Red Sea. 

And since deployment, they have only had one brief port call to Greece.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Capt. Christopher “Chowdah” Hill, the commander of the Eisenhower, told 60 Minutes.

If it sounds like a relentless schedule, here is why: It is the first time since World War II that the Navy has operated in an area where they are susceptible to getting shot at all day, every day, according to Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the U.S. military’s deputy commander in the Middle East.   

The Navy’s mission in the region has been protecting commercial ships from attacks by the Houthis, a Shia militia from Yemen that is backed by Iran. For months, Houthi fighters have targeted ships that they said were tied to Israel, in protest over Israel’s attacks on Gaza. But they now seem to be indiscriminately attacking vessels, many with no clear link to Israel, endangering shipping on a key global trade route that links Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

So far, Houthis have sunk two cargo ships, including one this past Wednesday. Overall, shipping traffic remains about half of what it was before the attacks began. 

60 Minutes got an up-close look at the Navy’s mission, starting with a ride on a Navy reconnaissance plane, the P-8 Poseidon. It’s a Boeing 737 converted to conduct anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance. It can move from 20,000 feet down to below 500 feet with nauseating speed, and it is able to skim the sea just above surface level. 

From the windows of the P-8 aircraft, the Eisenhower is visible in the waters below, patrolling the Red Sea in a constant state of vigilance. 

“I have people manning our combat direction center 24 hours a day,” Hill said. “We’re always ready. All hours of the night we could handle whatever comes this way.”

Although serving on the aircraft carrier has been a high-intensity assignment, 60 Minutes saw that morale has stayed high on board. According to Hill, that is by design. The philosophy aboard the Eisenhower is based on a quote from its namesake: “Morale is the single greatest factor in successful war.”  

To help keep spirits high during a grueling deployment, the ship’s Morale Welfare and Recreation Department hosts events to occupy sailors during their limited downtime, and the ship provides Wi-Fi access so sailors can stay in touch with family back home. 

In his communication as a leader, Hill said he uses “rapid, relentless, representative, positive communication,” or R3P. In doing so, Hill said he makes a point to recognize individual sailors, telling them how important their job is and remind them how well they are doing. 

“What does morale get us? Morale gets us success in battle,” Hill explained to correspondent Norah O’Donnell. “That’s the ultimate goal. You know, it might allow you to do well on inspections, allow you to do well in your day-to-day activities. But ultimately, it’s about combat and success … And it’s working.”

Video of a tanker at sea on fire courtesy of the Indian Navy/AP

The video above was originally published on February 18, 2024 and was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. 

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