By Senior Airman Rose Gudex
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — “If I was in my office when that blast went off, I would not be standing here before you today.”
Then U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer James Parlier, U.S.S. Cole command master chief, left his office at 11:13 a.m. for a meeting. Five minutes later, the clock hanging on his office wall stopped, broken, at 11:18 when a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device that left 17 sailors dead and many more critically injured.
Parlier, now retired, tells a story of devastation and how the ship’s small crew rallied together under horrendous conditions to save their ship. He described the leadership challenges, in addition to the expected chaos, to a crowd of joint service members at the Peterson Air Force Base Club on May 25.
Parlier was a hospital corpsman for 21 years before he became a command master chief. He said he continued to use his medical skills whenever an extra hand was needed aboard the ship. The value of that skillset increased exponentially Oct. 12, 2000 when the U.S.S. Cole pulled into the harbor of Aden off the coast of Yemen to refuel.
Just after he arrived at the meeting, he said the ship lurched and was “looking up.”
“There was a fireball, fuel ignited, the ship came down and water came up over the ship like the hand of God to put the fire out,” he said witnesses told him. With the immense load of weapons and ammunition on board, he said the outcome could have changed right then.
Even so, 17 sailors died almost instantly in machine spaces and the mess decks, he said.
”That blast was so powerful, it took the cooking gear, the stoves and everything, and blew them two and three decks above,” Parlier described.
The crew immediately began fighting serious flooding, manning stretchers and administering first aid where they could, even though communications were completely down.
“All that training we did paid off in lives,” he stated. “We got 59 people off in an hour and a half.”
This was no easy feat due to a 40 foot by 60 foot hole in the side of the ship, water pouring in and the crew on the defense waiting for a second attack. Parlier said some sailors “jerry-rigged” a gangplank by lifting a 5,000 — pound ladder to the side of the ship and had to trust Yemenis and their small boats to move people to safety.
The damage to the U.S.S Cole and its crew was extensive, he said. It took six days to get relatively stabilized. He vividly described moving around the ship, finding pieces of his crew, severed bodies, a torso on the serving line of the mess deck, and two pairs of boots where friends died together.
“That’s what I didn’t want the crew to see because it was bad enough already,” Parlier said, his leadership training kicking in. A large challenge he faced was keeping sailors motivated based on what they already saw.
In those moments, junior members stepped up and took charge, he said. The mission to prepare the ship for return to the U.S. was completed because there was no division in ranks at all — just respect in a time when it was greatly needed.
“The human spirit — when you train together like we do as military, no matter what service, and become a team, you can pretty much accomplish any challenge, provided you put your mind to it,” Parlier said. “Whether it’s race, rank, whatever, you don’t put any of that ahead of getting the mission done. That’s what helped us save the ship.”
The U.S.S. Cole and its crew went through an ordeal no one should have to experience, he said. The terrorist attack changed the way the Navy does business, both at land and sea. Medically, the equipment on ships and the procedures to treat patients changed as well.
In Nov. 2003, the Cole departed for its first deployment since the bombing, now displaying a blue –tiled hallway with seventeen stars, one for each sailor killed in Oct. 2000. Parlier said he will continue to tell the Cole’s story to remind Americans of that day and those who lost their lives.
For future sailors and service members, Parlier said his advice is to keep an open mind and continue to do your best every day in order to succeed.
“You have to treat every day as if it were your last because you just don’t know. You really don’t,” he said.