(Editor’s Note; New York Times Best Selling Author John David Mann sends us the first of a three-part photo essay about his tour aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln as a part of his research into co-authoring, “Steel Fear” with SOFREP Publisher and Founder Brandon Webb. As John told us in his SOREP Radio interview, the Lincoln, an enormous machine that was the home and workplace to a crew of thousands of men and women, was itself a character in the book. Its labyrinth of passageways and compartments was also the hunting ground of a serial killer. Mr. Mann wanted the setting of the story to feel real to those who served in the Navy and had experienced life aboard a warship.)
On the Trail of a Killer, Part I
At 0900 hours sharp, on a cold morning in early January 2019, I drove up to the pier in Norfolk, Virginia, in my rental car, ready to spend a day as a guest of the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, one of the U.S. military’s 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
I was there to solve a murder. But first, I had to commit the crime.
When Brandon and I set out to write Steel Fear, our carrier-based serial killer thriller, we knew the USS Abraham Lincoln itself had to become a central character in the novel. To make the story work, to make it real, we needed to put the reader (that’s you) right there onboard the ship, experiencing how it looks, feels, and smells.
A carrier is a bizarre, alien environment, unlike anything else on earth. If you’ve spent time on one, then you know. And if you haven’t, it’s nearly impossible to describe. For us, that was Challenge One.
First off, it’s hard to convey just how immense it is. The Navy calls it “4.5 acres of mobile sovereign U.S. territory” — but that four and a half acres is just the flight deck. The part you see in Top Gun. Most of its 6,000 residents will never see the flight deck. They live and toil in the claustrophobic city below. Twenty-plus miles of passageways (“p-ways,” in shipboard jargon), 50-plus acres of interior compartments, and about 6,000 souls all crammed into a steel tube roughly the size of the Empire State building lying on its side.
And those p-ways don’t run straight, like Manhattan avenues. They bend and dogleg left and right, come to abrupt stops, bump into ladders (never “staircases,” always “ladders”), and hatches and bulkheads. It’s like a demented steel hobbit-shire, a human ant farm in 3D on a generous military budget.
In Steel Fear we tell a story (it’s on page 6) about two brothers who deployed together on the same carrier: from the day they left port to the day they docked again seven months later, they never bumped into each other. Not once. It’s a true story. (Most of the vignettes in Steel Fear are based on true stories. Maybe not the murders.)
It’s crazy. And insanely impressive. American military might at its most jaw-dropping.
In this three-part series, I’ll walk you through the Lincoln through the eyes of our two main characters, Finn the SEAL with the troubled past and Monica the ambitious helo pilot, and show you what they’re seeing and experiencing.
Note on the photos: Most of these shots were taken right on the Lincoln during that January 8 visit, either by me or MC3 Amber Smalley, ship’s photographer, who accompanied us; a few, like the shot above, I pulled from third-party sources to fill out the picture.
When I arrived at the pier that January morning I was met by MC2 Kaylyn Jackson-Smith and MC Alan Lewis (the “MC” stands for “Mass Communication,” a public affairs–related rating), who escorted me to an office at Naval Air Forces Atlantic (CNAL), where I spent a little time chatting it up with Commander Dave Hecht, the top dog at CNAL’s public affairs office. Cmdr Hecht was an outstanding host: gave me a quick brief on the history of American carriers; asked about what we were up to; and filled in a few story details for me.
For example, I’d heard that the Navy was phasing out their Greyhound turboprop transport planes, which was a damn shame, because I’d wanted one of our characters to fly a Greyhound. I was thrilled to learn from Cmdr Hecht that the Navy, however, still had some Greyhounds in service on its carriers — including on the Lincoln.
After a lengthy visit, Cmdr Hecht handed me a stunning photo of the Lincoln executing a mid-ocean turn — exactly as it does twice in Steel Fear (chapters 19 and 41) — and my escorts brought me to the ship.
I absorbed some fascinating details on board the Lincoln that day. For example, that the sailors hoard cans of Monster from the ship’s store to trade for other stuff like prison-yard cigarette packs. That the rearmost point of the ship, called the fantail, is also one of the funkiest-smelling spots onboard, because that’s where they go to toss all their organic garbage overboard. That the nuclear-reactor-powered drive shafts that run the ship’s four brass pickup-truck-sized brass propellors run the full length of the ship through a channel near the hull called “Shaft Alley.”
But mostly I learned just how BIG the thing is.
This shot gives you a sense of the monster’s length. Three and a half football fields. That’s longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. Took my freaking breath away.
The second shot gives you a sense of scale. See those two guys up there? See how far that water is down there? You don’t want to fall overboard. Or jump (as Finn does at one point in the book). Or get tossed off.
Water doesn’t compress like a mattress. When you hit, you hit hard. As a few unfortunate souls learn in the pages of Steel Fear.
The book opens with Monica Halsey, a Knighthawk pilot, in her stateroom, staring into a steel mirror over a steel sink. A lot like these mirrors here. (I took this particular shot on the USS Enterprise the previous June, but they’re similar on the Lincoln.)
She glances around her stateroom. Monica has the upper bunk, her best friend Kris the rack below, only theirs is a four-rack compartment, which they share with one other roommate. The fourth rack is empty. Weeks before the story opens, death has already visited the Lincoln, and it’s not ready to leave yet.
After washing and dressing, Monica makes her way through the labyrinth and down two ladders to her squadron’s ready room.
You’re seeing her ready room here while the Lincoln was at port. On deployment, with a full air wing on board, those seats will all have slip-on covers with the names of the individual pilots sewn on. When a death happens, that person’s seat cover is quietly slipped off and put away, and everyone moves up a seat based on rank. “Like a game of musical chairs,” as it says in chapter 41. “Only no music.”
After the brief, Monica and the other three in her crew (including her insufferably arrogant CO Nikos Papadakis) make their way above to the flight deck, passing through doorways like this.
This is not a door you open casually. Watertight, heavy as sin. It’s through a door exactly like this that Lt Schofield will step in chapter 18, to his everlasting misfortune.
When Monica and her team reach the open air, the scene they confront is something like what you see here, only after midnight.
Life below was like living in a steel ant colony. Up here, everything was a mass of exploding chaos — yellow-jerseyed “shooters” signaling jet launches with their elaborate ballet; white-shirted “paddles” feeding the incoming pilots chunks of complex data with a wave of their glowing light sticks; green-jerseyed Martians swarming everywhere, checking and double-checking every facet of the machinery before takeoff. The roar of jet blast as the next pilot rammed the throttle forward sending a blaze of blistering exhaust back into concrete-and-steel blast deflectors raised on their servo motors just in time to catch the inferno. The air boss up in the tower, all-seeing, his amplified voice booming above the din, directing everything like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.
And that smell! That heady mix of diesel fumes, jet fuel, and salt air. Every time Monica stepped off the catwalk and out onto the deck it hit her again, like echoes of a first high school kiss. She couldn’t get enough of it. Wished she could bottle it.
In April, a few months after my visit, the Lincoln was deployed to the Persian Gulf for nine months. The shot you’re seeing above was taken on the Lincoln’s flight deck on Christmas Eve, 2019, right at the end of that deployment.
When Monica and her team reach the flight deck in Steel Fear, they board their Knighthawk for a one-hour hop out to Bahrain, where they will rendezvous with an odd and mysterious SEAL named Finn. In the next installment, I’ll take you through Finn’s first 12 hours on board.
About John David Mann
John is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are coauthored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear, and find links to interviews with Brandon and John, at SteelFear.com.