I first asked the Navy to board a ship going through the strait two years ago, as I started reporting a piece about Taiwan, but my request was turned down. Then, this October, Commander Megan Greene called to say, “We’ve got the green light.” She didn’t say why, but I reasoned that it was at least partly due to the approaching Biden-Xi summit. The Chinese military has also been increasingly aggressive. Last month, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet flew within ten feet of an American B-52 over the South China Sea.
I flew to Manila, where I boarded an MH-60 helicopter. The craft, propelled by two turboshaft engines, landed on the Rafael Peralta while it was still knifing through the choppy waters of the South China Sea, west of the Philippines. When I came aboard, the ship had just passed through the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago where China has militarized at least three atolls.
The Rafael Peralta, named for a marine who was killed in Iraq when he threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades, is devoid of luxury. Most of the sailors sleep in bunks stacked three high. The corridors are just wide enough to move through, the food tastes like it’s from a high-school cafeteria (dinner one night was corn dogs), and the ship is rocked relentlessly by wind.
Cooper, the captain, took command of the Rafael Peralta in 2022. Like many of the sailors I met on the ship, he grew up nowhere near an ocean: in Bexley, Ohio, outside Columbus, where his father worked as a stockbroker and his mother taught school. His parents, hoping to push him into the wider world, insisted that their son leave Ohio to attend college, and Cooper secured a congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Since Cooper assumed command of the Rafael Peralta, he and his crew have been at sea for months on end, with only brief port calls to take on supplies and fuel. He told me he’d grown almost fond of seeing nothing but water: “It’s beachfront property, twenty hours a day.”
Cooper, forty-two, passed on and off the bridge—the elevated compartment, stacked with radios and radar, that affords a near-total view of the sea. When he was away, the Rafael Peralta was driven by a group of officers, most of them still in their twenties. One of them was Ensign Justice Mermerian, a twenty-one-year-old from Boise, Idaho. Like most of the officers aboard, Mermerian is the child of immigrants, motivated by a desire to serve the country. Her mother is from Mexico, her father from Syria; she graduated from the Naval Academy in May. “We feel grateful to this country for what it has done for our family,’’ she said. On the South China Sea, Mermerian piloted the Rafael Peralta as it got gas, a tricky maneuver that required her to steer her vessel alongside a massive refuelling ship, the U.S.N.S. Wally Schirra, while both were sailing at almost twenty knots per hour. (The destroyer’s gas tank holds four hundred and fifty thousand gallons, which last as long as two months.)