ABOARD THE USS PHILIPPINE SEA -- Four Tomahawk cruise missiles slashed into the night sky Sunday, part of the United States' first military blow in President Bush's war on terrorism.
"Is that awesome or what?" said the captain of the USS Philippine Sea, who could only be identified by his first name, Chris. He spoke as the final missile thundered away, its booster separating and dropping into the sea.
Though the captain would not specify the target, even generally, reports soon emerged of the U.S.-British action against Afghanistan. The United States accuses Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of sheltering Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
In Washington, military officials said the initial strike involved 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from American and British ships. Gen. Richard Myers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said 15 bombers and 25 strike aircraft, both sea and land-based, also were involved. The assault came at 12:30 p.m. EDT - nighttime in Afghanistan, hitting targets around the main cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.
Four of the five Tomahawks launched from the USS Philippine Sea went off smoothly, beginning at 6:56 p.m. local time (10:56 a.m. EDT). One of the missiles misfired, failing to clear the launcher. The captain said a Tomahawk from another ship would be fired at the failed missile's intended target.
"We were a very small part of a very, very large event that's happening tonight," the captain said after the last missile was out of sight. He confirmed only that the action was part of the U.S. military's Operation Enduring Freedom and said: "I think our enemies have underestimated our resolve."
The USS Philippine Sea is part of the USS Enterprise battle group. But, citing security concerns, the captain of the Philippine Sea declined to reveal even an approximate location for the cruiser. The admiral of the USS Enterprise, a battle group with 7,500 people and many ships, said he could only say that the aircraft carrier itself was operating in the northern Indian Ocean.
The fourth of the five planned launches, at 7:03 p.m., misfired, failing to leave the launcher. It lighted up the sea and aft deck until it burned out. Tiny bits of hot metal rained down. Photographers and some sailors in the area took cover near the Harpoon launchers. Nobody was hurt.
An announcement was issued: "Restrained firing aft. Restrained firing aft. Do not go aft. If you're aft, take cover.
Later, the captain said "the bolts that hold the missile into the cell didn't release. I don't know why." Still, he described the action as "a very successful night."
Sunday was the first day journalists were allowed access to U.S. military facilities in the region, which have been on high alert since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon nearly a month ago.
Earlier Sunday, aboard the USS Enterprise, the admiral instructed journalists not to use his name and said the secrecy surrounding the operations was critical.
"We have absolutely nothing to hide, but a lot of things to protect," he said. "We're facing new danger, and we have to take precautions."
The Defense Department set down a policy of providing no last names for all its people except those in command positions, according to officials aboard the ships.
Those in command positions were given a choice about letting reporters use last names. The captain of the USS Philippine Sea, like his superiors on the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, decided to allow use of his first name only.
Shortly before the action began, the captain of the Philippine Sea addressed the ship.
In an announcement over the public address system at 6:15 p.m., the captain said, "In about a half hour, we will be launching Tomahawks. We didn't start this on the 11th of September but we are going to finish it. ... I know your courage is there and I know your commitment is there."
Ensign Holman, 27, of Grand Rapids, Mich., said his first thought on hearing strikes were coming was: "It's finally here."
The ensign was the assistant strike officer, helping coordinate and organize the launches in the Combat Information Center, from which the captain ran the strikes.
The strike officer, Lt. Brandon, 26, of Waterloo, Iowa, said, "It's kind of shocking. I've been here training two years for this to actually happen ... It's kind of overwhelming."