The USS Saratoga conducts operations in the Mediterranean Sea on Sept. 15, 1985. WIKIPEDIA COMMONS/Special
By Tommy Ferrell
When we consider the current COVID-19 challenge, we would do well to remember that the hardships of our life are often what make us into people with Christ’s character.
Indeed, the Bible teaches us that our faith is being shaped and that our trials “have come so that the proven genuineness of our faith – of greater worth than gold – may result in praise, glory, and honor, when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7). On a personal note, it has been the challenges in my life experience that God has used to shape me into the man that I am today.
I’ll long remember in my mind the image of Jerry Unruh, my commanding officer, sitting in the captain’s chair on the Bridge, with his feet up, shoulders back, and a coffee cup in his hand. Our captain appeared so relaxed and in command, even though we were in a live-fire Cold War operation against the Libyan Navy, a proxy of our adversary, the Soviet Union.
I was standing just a few feet behind the captain that day. As a 19-year old operations specialist on the Bridge of the supercarrier USS Saratoga, I was sailing into new waters on our 1985-86 Med/Indian Ocean Deployment. Not so for Captain Jerry Unruh. He had long-since enlisted in the Navy in 1957, as a 17-year old. Yet, many years and extraordinary trials of faith had shaped Captain Unruh’s courage and character, preparing him for leadership on this occasion; the largest sea-battle since World War II!
Between his enlistment in 1957, and our eventful deployment on the Saratoga in 1985-86, the Captain’s command resume included serving as a Viet-Nam era fighter pilot with over 280 combat missions, leading two fighter-jet squadrons, and commanding the Navy’s prestigious TOP GUN Fighter Weapons School, which had all prepared him for sitting in the Captain’s seat on the USS Saratoga!
In contrast, Libya’s president, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, had threatened the Saratoga and her battle group not to cross his “Line of Death,” the 32’ 30’ parallel, which was 200 miles off of the Libyan coastline and 188 miles beyond Libya’s lawful 12-mile territorial waters. Since Gaddafi’s leadership in a Libyan Socialist uprising in the early 1970s and a subsequent military coup d’etat, he had often voiced ardent opposition against the United States.
Furthermore, Gaddafi had formed a military and political alliance with the communist government of the Soviet Union, and he ultimately provoked a shooting conflict with the United States Navy. In fact, it would be three Soviet-made Libyan-flagged Nanuchka Class Naval vessels that the Saratoga Battle Group would destroy in 1986, along with several Libyan coastal military and radar installations.
Saratoga’s eventful 1985-86 deployment would include several other news-making events, including the capture of Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists who hijacked the Italian Cruise Ship Achille Lauro and executed an elderly handicapped Jewish-American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer. This apprehension of the terrorists, coordinated with Navy Seal Team Six, would entail Captain Unruh’s direct coordination and communication with the Situation Room of the Reagan White House!
In my book GAME CHANGER: The Cruise that Changed Everything, I detail how Saratoga’s involvement in these significant events, particularly the Achille Lauro incident followed by the Libyan “Line of Death Operations,” was a significant factor in the dismantling of the Soviet Empire, and the resurgence of American morale and patriotism.
The greater occurrence of this eventful deployment, however, was the emergence of a spiritual awakening that swept through the 5,000-man crew and airwing of the USS Saratoga! Over 100 of the crew were baptized in Israel’s Jordan River, on a Holy Land Tour, by Saratoga’s Command Chaplain Hugo Hammond. Chaplain Hammond, now in his late 80s, recently recounted to me how a young Englishman, who was a tourist, standing along the shore of the Jordan River, called out asking if he could also be baptized. He ran down the bluff and joined the large group of young Saratoga sailors publicly professing their faith on a cloudless day – November 12, 1985! In fact, I trace my call to the gospel ministry to that eight-month 1985-86 Med/IO Deployment of the USS Saratoga.
Those were hard times for us all; but they were some of the greatest times of my life in certain respects. As my book summary claims: these were days of Action, Adventure, and Amazing Grace!
One of the amazing “God-things” of this entire experience has been the unexpected reunion with my old Commanding Officer – Vice Admiral Jerry Unruh, USN (ret.). I got out and went to college, seminary, and into the ministry. The Admiral went on to command the US Navy’s Third Fleet, formerly commanded by the famed Admiral Bull Halsey during World War II.
The Admiral is 80 now. He has written the foreword and a final chapter to my book; making a great contribution. Even more, he has become a dear friend as well as an encourager in my service to the LORD. He even asked me to conduct his “service” when the time comes.
Based upon his tenacity, however, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he outlasts me. But for both of us and in response to a life of overcoming trials with the LORD’s help, we have a calm assurance that “He will never leave us or forsake us!”
Tommy Ferrell serves as lead pastor of Briarlake Baptist Church in Decatur.