When my mother came into the bedroom that morning she found me in a pair of shorts and putting on a T-shirt. She hadn’t seen me in a year and had a big smile on her face. Then she saw the ugly yellowish bruises on my body and gasped before bursting into tears, “My God! What is the Navy doing to you, Sean?” I didn’t know what to say to her, but I knew what I wasn’t allowed to say: “Mom, I just got back from SERE School.”

This is the story of how I got those bruises and made my mother cry.

It was a cold December in 1983 and I had two weeks’ leave that would take me out past New Years’. I was assigned to a Replacement Air Squadron (RAG), HSL-30 “Neptune’s Horsemen” and learning the ropes as an Aviation Anti-Submarine Warfare Operator in the SH2f LAMPS Seasprite helicopter. “LAMPS” was an acronym for Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System and reflected the Swiss Army knife capabilities of the Seasprite.

For its time, it was a fast helicopter that could cruise at 130kts and had retractable landing gear. It could also lift three tons, which was nearly its own weight, so it was very useful in lifting cargo from a supply ship to the destroyers and frigates it operated off. It could also be armed to the teeth. From its two hardpoints it could fire a pair of .50 cal machine guns with two M-60n machine guns firing out the door and port-side opening, two rocket pods, two Penguin anti-ship missiles, or two Mk-48 or Mk-50 torpedoes, and last but by no means least, even a B-57 nuclear depth bomb. The Navy didn’t even acknowledge that a Seasprite could carry the B-57, and as a crewman, we didn’t like to even think about it, since we doubted we would survive it going off.

This SH2f is from HSL-3o and is stripped out as a utility or “Ute bird.” The candy stripe box is where the sonobuoy launcher has been removed to make more interior room for additional seats or cargo. In a combat SAR configuration that panel would come out and an M-60n machine gun would be sticking out. That big fat tank of JP4 jet fuel would also be replaced with rockets or a .50 cal (DoD. Photo by PH2 Wiggin.)

The helicopter had a sensor suite that included radar, sonobuoys, and magnetic anomaly detection gear that, when its data was linked to the “Jezebel” processor on the ship, made it a truly deadly sub hunter. (Legend has it that the processor was so named because in the early days of the Sound Spectrogram systems used to record and analyze underwater sound, operators would pick up unidentified and terrifying shrieks and moans that they named “The Jezebel Monster.” These sounds were later discovered to be the songs of whales.)

The helicopter could even fly out beyond the horizon and do OTH, or Over The Horizon, targeting an enemy vessel. The helicopter would sit at sea level in a hover, then pop up to 1,500 feet, turn on its radar for three sweeps of the antenna, and then drop back down to the deck. The sensor operator would use a grease pencil on the screen to mark contacts. Do this pop and sweep routine four or five times and you had a pretty good idea of the target’s course, speed, range, and bearing.

Aboard the target vessel, the radar operators would see a stationary and intermittent contact for a couple of seconds that would disappear and likely be dismissed as surface clutter or some other artifact and maybe a brief faint detection of a radar frequency on their ESM receiver. Meanwhile, using a secure data link we could relay that target information back to the ship and they could bring a salvo of missiles down on the bad guy without him even knowing a U.S. destroyer was lurking a couple of hundred miles away and outside his detection range. A lot is written about the weapons men carry into battle, we used to joke that in our case the weapon carried us.

A pretty rare photo of a Seasprite armed with two live “war-shot” Mk-48 torpedoes. The absence of squadron markings means it was probably assigned to Patuxent River Naval Air Warfare Center in Maryland. At the time this photo was taken it would have been classified as SECRET. The U.S. didn’t share anti-submarine warfare information with anybody, not even NATO. September 1982. (Department of the Navy)

So that is what I was learning about in Norfolk for four months of classroom, simulator, and actual flight missions. We did SAR (Search and Rescue) jumps into the cold brown waters of Chesapeake Bay and ran under a hovering Seasprite to sling cargo pallets under her exposed belly about six feet above you. We flew out to frigates and practice aircraft refueling while it hovered over the flight deck, called a “HIFR.” All of that was fun and dangerous stuff for a 19-year-old SAR swimmer almost at the end of the nearly two-year training pipeline to get into the fleet as a SAR-AW.