In Gulf, US Navy `snipes' have extra-hot job. Men of the engine-room are most vulnerable to mines

Engineer Jerry Seamons is no stranger to cramped working spaces and dangerous jobs. Prior to joining the US Navy in 1986, he mined coal in Colorado. Now, he makes his living in a war zone, working amid the blast of 110-degree heat and the constant roar of generators and gas turbines 15 feet below the waterline of this guided-missile frigate.

Mr. Seamons, a native of Twin Falls, Idaho, is known on the Vandegrift as ``Oil King.'' The fancy job title is the only perquisite that comes with the hot and messy duty of looking after the fuel supply and lubrication needs of the ship's twin LM 2500 gas turbine engines, the same as on a DC-10 jet.

A fellow engineer describes the duty as ``one of the most thankless jobs in the United States Navy.''

It is a side of the ongoing American military deployment in the Gulf that is rarely, if ever, in the spotlight.

``We're down here where nobody sees us. They don't even think about us as long as the ship is going through the water and doing what it is supposed to do,'' Seamons says, his face and coveralls drenched with sweat.

But the Vandegrift's 42 engineers are the men who would scramble to put out fires and plug holes in the steel hull if the frigate was rocked by a mine blast or engaged in combat. It is their job as damage-control officers, not only to ensure the ship stays afloat, but also to see that as many systems as possible continue to operate, enabling the ship to fight on.

And with mines currently posing the greatest threat to US forces in the Gulf, it is the engineers working around the clock deep within the frigate's engine plant who are most vulnerable.

``Combat [information center] is the brains of the ship - they are the glory boys,'' says gas turbine systems technician Jim Lammey of Pottstown, Pa. ``But we are the heart. They need us to give them power.''

Ever since the era of the old steam ships with their sweltering engine rooms and coal-shoveling crews, there has been rivalry between the men who work in the hot engine spaces and those who stand watch, monitor radars, or look after weapons systems on the more comfortable upper decks.

``Us engineer people down here doing all the hot and hard work, we never get noticed,'' says engineman Thomas Winding of Chicago. ``The only people who get noticed are the weapons guys - the twidgits.''

He explains, ``We're the snipes and they're the twidgits.''

``Twidgit'' is Navy slang for an electronics technician. And ``snipe'' is slang for the men of the engine room.

While complaints are common, every engineer interviewed for this article - without exception - said he preferred being a snipe to becoming a twidgit.

``I'm not interested in weapons,'' says engineer William Bain of Glenview, Ill. ``I get more satisfaction out of taking something that isn't working right and making it work right.''

There are other rewards as well. ``If you pick the right job as a snipe, at least you have a [skilled] job when you get out of the Navy,'' says Mr. Winding.

He adds, ``Whereas, a lot of these guys in `twidgitland' won't be able to find anything because most neighborhoods back in the States don't have a missile site.''

Despite the usual complaints by engineers, the Navy is beginning to pay more attention to the critical role they play, particularly in damage control.

Last spring when a mine blew open the bottom of the guided-missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts in the central Gulf, it was the ship's damage-control officers - engineers - who were recognized and decorated as heros after they rescued fellow crewmen and kept the ship from sinking by lashing it together with steel cables.

Operating in this ``lake in the middle of a desert'' presents special challenges for the engineers. Sand, dust, humidity, and intense heat take their toll on sensitive computers and precision machinery, particularly when systems are maintained at a high state of readiness for long stretches of time.

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