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thedrifter
05-24-08, 08:55 AM
The Navy's big show in NYC

By Matthew Jones
The Virginian-Pilot
May 24, 2008

Aboard the Kearsarge

Out in the Atlantic, 40,000 tons of goodwill was steaming northward under a full moon.

In the hangar bay of this amphibious assault ship, several hundred sailors and Marines crowded the small stage as a USO rock band screeched into its opening number.

In less than two days, these young men and women would be stepping off the brow in Manhattan, bound for a week of community service and bar crawls, parades and ball games, ship tours and go-go bars.

Show, don't tell. It's a lesson the Navy learned long ago.

Almost every year for the past 25, it has sent ships to New York City for Fleet Week.

The formula is simple and foolproof: Send ships to various cities on each coast and let the tourists on. Send the sailors out into town to schools and community centers and soup kitchens, spreading Navy sunshine.

The Navy spends about $1.5 million to put on Fleet Week in New York. Most of that goes to cover the ships' berthing costs.

That figure doesn't include the investment of time by the ships and their crews. Technically, Fleet Week counts as a training mission - a diplomatic one.

This adds up to one massive publicity effort. But don't call it advertising. Call it "outreach."

"We have the responsibility to let people know about their Navy in person, to see and touch it," said Capt. Conrad Chun, of Fleet Forces Command.

"So..." goaded the band's singer, "you guys ready to go to New York?"

He was met by an otherworldly roar.

By the next morning, everyone aboard had settled into a typical under way routine, however brief.

Small groups of Marines practiced hand-to-hand combat in the hangar bay. Sailors moved through the ship on the way to do the thousand different tasks required to keep things smooth.

Watching the activity was a group of U.S. Naval Sea Cadets from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, part of a program for teens.

"If this is what they want to do the rest of their lives, they have to see it," said Lt. Cmdr. Harry Bierbach, the group's commanding officer. So the group assembled M-249 machine guns with Marines and got a field 911 primer from some Navy hospital corpsmen. And they worked.

Dan Mulderrig spent the day restocking vending machines and helping in the ship's store. It was the 18-year-old's first time on a moving ship.

"It's not all the glamour that the recruiters say. It looks like an average life, an average job," he said, adding that nothing has altered his plans to go to college, become a Marine artillery officer and head to the Middle East.

Throughout the Kearsarge, sailors only slightly older than the cadets adjusted to life aboard their first ship.

Airman Felicia Rapp watched flight operations in the afternoon drizzle. The 19-year-old hails from Jackson, Ohio, where "we have a Wal-Mart and that's about it, so this is glorious."

Seaman Recruit Ashley Peak was decidedly less enthused, as she scrubbed the deck on her hands and knees behind a Marine tank.

The 20-year-old likes the Navy, but offered that Fleet Week is not reality.

"We're putting on a show, obviously," she said. "They're civilians. They'll never really know what's going on."

By early evening, the ship had anchored in Gravesend Bay by Brooklyn. Outside, the drizzle had turned to a cold rain. Inside, the crew was getting a lecture.

The ship's leaders ran down the rules in preparation for Wednesday's port call. Pair up with a buddy, don't drink underage, don't fight, you're a diplomat.

That done, the first wave of temptation boarded the ship: a foursome of USO singers, three women and a man.

They took to the stage in World War II-era outfits, Andrews Sisters meet The Rockettes. The women's outfits barely covered their rear flanks. Their harmonious voices were lost in the din of the hangar bay. It made absolutely no difference to the open-mouthed, mostly male audience.

Along with the singers came the first of what would be an onslaught of reporters, a vital part of getting word out about the ships. During New York's 2007 Fleet Week, the Navy hosted about 100 outlets from as far away as China and Japan. Stories appeared in papers and over television and radio networks all over the globe.

"If we get coverage of ships on local TV, that's free advertising," said Fleet Forces' Chun.

That's a good thing, he said, but the most important measure is the number of visitors who board the ships - more than 73,000 last year.

If a person takes a tour, Chun said, "I know I had his undivided attention for an hour and a half."

That's time to explain why the Navy still matters when the country is at war in the desert. And how it's taking on different tasks.

Kenneth Delaruelle, the Kearsarge's command master chief, looked forward to telling visitors about the Navy taking on more humanitarian roles around the world, as the Kearsarge will do later this year in the Caribbean and beyond.

The helicopters started early Wednesday morning, ferrying distinguished guests from Manhattan to tour the ship before the parade into New York Harbor.

The hope, as with the media coverage, is that these influential people will enjoy their visit and spread kind words about the Navy.

One tour included Barry Kluger, inspector general for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who was impressed.

"It's not a show," he said. "You see how much they deserve our respect."

As made his way through the ship's medical triage area, Kluger's eyes fell on a whiteboard used to track the locations of injured sailors and Marines.

"It's a nice tour, everybody's smiling," he said, "then you see that line for the morgue and the reality sets in. It's not a political football about Iraq. It's about real commitments people make."

By late morning, the ship steamed into the harbor behind the cruisers Leyte Gulf and Monterey and the destroyers The Sullivans and Nitze. On the flight deck, sailors and Marines took their place along the ship's rail, presenting themselves to their host city.

The ship glided under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Statue of Liberty before reaching the west side of Manhattan. About 12:30 p.m., the ship gave three blasts of its horn as it turned into Pier 88 and prepared to tie up. Then the wait began.

Four hours later, the ship's brow went down. A whoop went up, and the hangar bay emptied in minutes.

By 8 p.m., the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square was packed with sailors for a special party that turned out to be a study in contrasts.

There were the Washington Redskins cheerleaders, doing a spirited routine in military-inspired shorts and bikini tops.

Then there was Lance Cpl. Matt Bradford, who lost both eyes and legs to a homemade bomb in Iraq. He came out on canes, and silence fell. Then, one by one, a line of sailors and Marines stepped up to thank him.

As the party ended, the sailors and Marines left in small groups, bound for a bit of fun. Cpl. Brandon Lovell and a half-dozen of his fellow Marines headed for Hurley's, a small bar around the corner that was hosting a Fleet Week event.

Inside, women posed with the Marines' hats on. Guys at the bar bought them rounds of shots. Lovell and his gang played their part, yelling and imbibing and talking good-natured trash. They tried to explain weapons systems. They bashed the Army.

"I love New York!" Lovell yelled heavenward as he stepped onto the deck for a smoke. "I'm going to be a hobo in this town!"

As they left the bar, they ran into a group of sailors and a couple of local women. In a nod to V-E day, they obliged a request to scoop a woman up and hold her parallel to the ground for a photo. They were last seen heading west, cards for a go-go bar in hand, looking for an ATM.



It was raining and windy in East Harlem on Thursday morning, as the second-graders at Vito Marcantonio public school peppered a half-dozen sailors with questions.

The children asked if they liked helping people. The sailors said they did. The children asked what their favorite part of the Navy was. Many said the travel. The children asked what the sailors did on their ships.

"I build bombs and missiles," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Lashawna Davis, an aviation ordnanceman.

"Ooooh," the children replied.

Afterward, the sailors and children paired off to read books. Back on the Kearsarge, tours were well under way.

A Marine pilot chased away two boys as they climbed around the cockpit of a Super Cobra helicopter. Nearby, a group of eighth-graders from the Bronx were climbing on a Huey helicopter and posing for each other.

One of them, Joshua James, 14, has lots of family in the Navy.

"I support them in what they do," he said, "but I don't think it's for me."

Down below, Rebecca Hogan and her four young children toured the ship, climbing on tanks and playing with a virtual reality demonstration.

The family had met a group from the ship the night before on the subway, and the children had been so taken with them that she decided to come out.

"These are the guys out there getting killed," Hogan said. "I wanted my kids to see they are real people."

Matthew Jones, (757) 446-2949, matthew.jones@pilotonline.com

Ellie