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Steaming at a sedate three knots, the giant warship suddenly and almost absent-mindedly ejected a landing craft from its cavernous stern compartment. As the small vessel emerged from the darkness into the brilliant sunshine it smaked into a heavy swell. Within seconds the Marine security detail was drenched to the skin.

Some three miles away a band of Cuban refugees in a small boat was also wet through. But unlike the Leathernecks, they were also hungry, thirsty, exhausted , and near despair. They had run out of gas fighting heavy seas between Mariel and Key West and for 1 1/2 days they had been helplessly drifting. Capt. Richard Murphy was bringing the USS Saipan to their rescue.

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The amphibious assault ship, named for the Pacific island the Marines wrested from the Japanese at great cost in 1944, was ordered into the straits from Norfolk, Va., earlier this month to help Coast Guard vessels usher the freedom flotilla from Cuba to Florida and safety. It was accompanied by the tank-landing ship USS Boulder, visible some five miles away to starboard.

Although the Saipan's primary function is to throw a Marine landing force ashore in helicopters, landing craft, and amphibious vehicles, its secondary mission is one of evacuation and disaster relief. Its motto, "Omnia Facimus" ("We do it all"), would seem to be no vain boast. Here, in the Florida Straits, it is performing a humanitarian role that it is uniquely equipped for.

Patrolling a sector of ocean 85 miles long and 25 miles wide, the Saipan monitors vessels heading to and from Mariel with its sophisticate radar and 14 helicopters. With its six landing craft it rescues refugees from crippled and sinking boats.

The landing craft plowed on towards the refugees in their stricken launch, bucking alarmingly as it scaled the crests of the waves and slapped into the troughs. To add to the discomfort of the Marines, some of whom had become seasick, a rainstorm broke over the vessel.

By the time the landing craft reached the area where the refugees had been reported adrift, the Cubans had been taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter. In a decidedly perilous operation a launch transferred them from the cutter to the landing craft which then headed back towards the Saipan.

As the landing craft nosed back into the Saipan's well deck with its bedraggled cargo, a loudspeaker boomed news of their arrival and bells sounded urgently. Marine Corps military policemen braced themselves forbiddingly as its ramp went down. But there was hardly a crowd control problem: seven men, two without shoes and several grinning sheepishly, emerged to be escorted up to the hangar deck, where a huge sign declared: "Bienvenidos a los Estatos Unidos -- USS Saipan." Says Lt. Fred Klein, the ship's meteorologist: "They get a real smile out of that."

Once on the hangar deck, the refugees were seated on a row of chairs, regaled with oranges and apples, and given forms to fill out. The whole ship's company, it seemed, turned out to greet them. Spanish-speaking sailors and Marines reassured them and Marine Chaplain Lt. James O'Kielty hovered in the background ready to provide any immediate spiritual assistance that might be requested.

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But the refugees were not to enjoy the Saipan's hospitality for long. Lifejackets and ear protectors were produced and laid out before them. One or two giggled as a Marine showed them how to put on the lifejacket and inflate it. Several minutes later, wearing the equipment awkwardly, they were led of to a waiting helicopted which sprang from the deck of the Saipan and clattered off to Key West, 30 miles away. Twelve apples and 13 oranges remained uneaten.

Lieutenant O'Kielty, an Irisman from Achill, County Mayo, who learned Spanish while a chaplain in the Bolivian army, has a unique perspective on the refugees. "Most haven't eaten for four or five days," he says, adding that many have been subjected to harsh treatment before they escaped from Cuba. One man told him that when he and his wife returned home from the Peruvian Embassy with exit passes, they found a placard on their house that proclaimed their imminent departure for the US and labeled the man a homosexual and his wife a prostitute. A crowd outside the house subjected them to verbal abuse.

"His wife has a nervous breakdown," the chaplain says. He adds that, according to the refugees, the Cuban authorities are separating families to demoralize those leaving for the US.

Recently he celebrated Mass at 10:30 at night for a group f newly arrived refugees. "They thought they were dying [adrift in the straits], and they vowed that if they were saved they would have a Mass." He says the Mass was the first one they has attended for three to four years, emphasizing that there is no freedom of religion in Cuba. Indeed, he alleges, there is a degree of religious persecution.

"They detest Fidel Castro," the chaplain declares. "They think he is the devil incarnate. They say he's getting worse. Some claim he is a drug addict. Many saw him as a savior in 1959 but say he is continually harassing them now and [until Mariel was opened] there was no way of escape."

Lieutenant O'Kielty, who was close by when the Bolivian Army killed Che Guevara and who once served in the Congo as a missionary, says that the refugees paint a bleak picture of the Cuban economy. "They tell me that oranges cost $1. 50 each and that everything is on the black market and there are daily queues for food." Cuba, he says, is "full of corruption. The Cubans love their country , but they say it is being destroyed."

The chaplain, attached to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C., helps the incoming refugees with "spiritual problems" and assures them that they are safe and will be well looked after. Those who arrive at day's end and stay on board overnight show a marked reluctance to go to bed after they have showered and eaten. They are simply too excited, he says. Most tell him they want to live in Miami. He observes that those arriving from jails claim to be political prisoners.

"It's all been a very softening experience," says Lieutenant O'Kielty, "You feel for them. Some come out of these boats with nothing more than a pair of horts. They must be desperate."

He relates that one woman who was five to six months pregnant told him, "I thank God my son will be born in the United States." That, the chaplain asserts, "was sort of touching."

He notes that many of the refugees are terrified of the helicopters and he takes steps to assuage their fears. Before they are lifted away from the Saipan he delivers something of a pep talk, telling the refugees that they are an asset to the United States.

"You've come here with love in your hearts, strong arms, and a willingness to work," he tells them. It raises their spirits and those going to relatives gratefully leave their addresses with him, the first friend they have made in the United States. "They really are industrious, hard working, honest, and an asset to the country," he says.

Chaplain O'Kielty observes that the Saipan's humanitaian mission has been good for the Marines, melting some of their legendary hardness. "I've been very touched when I see them dealing with these people. Their toughness is only a varnish."

Looking like an aircraft carrier to the uninitiated, the USS Saipan has so far picked up 419 refugees.Many of these, adrift in the Gulf Stream (which travels at between three and three and a half knots), would have died, officers on the Saipan agree. "IF somebody runs out of gas, pretty soon they disappear into no place," says one.

The Saipan's helicopters, which conduct search and rescue missions as far as 40 miles from the warship, follow a standard procedure for reporting what hey see. "Green" vessels require no assistance; "yellow" ones are potential problems, and "red" require immediate attention. Nightfall does not clamp down on helicopter activity: three Navy helicopters have what is known as "night hover capability."

By no means does every vessel need to be taken in tow and its passengers transferred to the warship's landing craft. Sometimes a drifting boat only needs to have its battery jump started. But on one occasion a helicopter lowered a doctor to boat at night to invesigate a reported heart attack.

The Saipan's largest landing craft, which are 132 feet long and weigh 400 tons, often steam overnight looking for straggling boats.

The Saipan's crew was not overly enthusiastic about leaving Norfolk at such short notice. But once out in the straits they quickly found the mercy mission to be a satisfying one. Indeed, they have displayed a warmth above and beyond the call of duty. The cooks recently baked a birthday cake for a nine-year-old boy who came aboard, topped with a "9" spelled out in maraschino cherries.

"His mother sais it was the first birthday party he's had in a long while," says Lieutenant Klein. "It made his day." The cake was apparently washed down with generous quantities of Kool-aid.

Lt. Comdr. Gary Scott, the ship's intelligence officer, recalls one little girl who "licked an apple for two to three minutes until someone said you're supposed to bite it."

While on patrol in the Florida Straits, the USS Saipan, which is the most advanced ship of its kind in the world, has attracted the attention of the Cuban Navy.

"An SO-1 class coastal patrol boat took a look at us the other day," says Commander Scott, adding that a coastal freighter, the Las Mercedas, which has been shadowing the assault ship, "has a rather fancy TV antenna" -- an indication that it may be snooping electronically on the Saipan. There are no secrets to hide. It's all "open voice, unsecured circuits," says Commander Scott. "They can't be learning anything that they haven't already learned. Of course they might be learning something about how the Navy and the Coast Guard are working together," he says.

But he does concede that the vessel may be snooping on classified radio traffic intended for Rear Adm. Warren Hamm, Commander of Amphibious Group Two, currently aboard the Saipan. Could the Cubans be interested in the admiral's career? commander Scott smiles. "He's a dynamic young leader, very strong," he asserts loyally.

The soviet navy is also showing an interest in the Saipan. A 350-foot Moma-class auxiliary intelligence collector bearing the number 506 on its hull has been spotted within a mile of the US ship. The intelligence officer reports that no Cuban MiGs have come within 15 miles of the Saipan but adds that weather reconnaissance aircraft have flown over it.

Earlier this month the USS Saipan, which is armed with three five-inch guns, six 20-mm cannons, and Sea Sparrow antiaircraft missiles, was to have taken part in military exercises at Guantanamo, a US base in eastern Cuba.Though denied a valuable opportunity for training with the cancellation of the exercise, the Saipan has nevertheless been put through its paces during the current emergency. "We are testing just about everything you could in an assault landing," says Commander Scott. "The flight deck crew are particularly getting good training out of it."

Comdr. Rick Colthurst, the Saipan's operations officer, denies that the warship is preparing to evacuate he refugees from either Mariel or Guantanamo. "There are no plans to have that occur," he says. "We're here to assist ships that are sinking." moreover he denies that the Saipan has been rehearsing for any sealift. "There have been no drills with regard to pulling people out of Cuba," he assets. And he "categorically denies" reports that such drills have already been carried out.

Nevertheless he says that the Saipan, which can generate its own electricity and fresh water, and with three staff doctors can accommodate 300 hospital patients, could evacuate 2,000 people if the need arose and 6,000 an emergency.

"But quite candidly, we're not preparing for that," he insists.

The Saipan steams on, passing a small pleasure craft that is sinking stern-first. There is no sign of life aboard. Down below, in the well deck, Chaplain O'Kierty peers out at the azure sea that seems a little calmer now.

"Thank God the weather's been good," he says. "This could have been a catastrophe." But Lieutenant Klein notes ominously that the Straits of Florida are particularly prone to hurricanes in July and august, a fact only too well-known by the captains of Spanish galleons. All the indications are that the flotilla of small boats will stil be streaming north to freedom then -- and very possibly a rendezvous with the USS Saipan.

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