You know it’s been a good evening when Mom, Dad, and the kids all leave a party ebullient. The party in question was a fund-raising reception aboard the USS Hornet, which is a floating museum. The guests of honor were members of the Blue Angels team. My husband was a bit dubious about the whole thing, but I bought the tickets, and bullied, and arranged, and fought my way through two hours of traffic to make it happen — and I am happy to report that I was in the pleasant position of being able to say “I told you so” as to something delightful.
Let me start with the mise en scène. The USS Hornet, which is docked at Alameda Point (formerly the Naval Air Station Alameda), played a significant role during WWII. The Hornet museum’s own website spells out precisely what a debt we Americans owe to the Hornet and the men who served on her. Here are just some of the highlights:
One of twenty-four Essex class aircraft carriers, the CV-12 was named Kearsarge when her keel was laid at Newport News on August 3, 1942. After the first carrier HORNET (CV-8) was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942, the Navy changed the name of CV-12 to HORNET to carry on the name of her predecessor.
By the conclusion of World War II, she had amassed an unequalled combat record.
Commissioned only 15 months after the laying of her keel, HORNET and her green crew were rushed through their shakedown cruise in only 14 days instead of the usual 4 to 5 weeks.
In June 1944, HORNET began seven weeks of intensive air strikes in the Marianas Islands including the strategic islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. During this period more than 3,000 sorties were flown from HORNET’s flight deck against Saipan. VF-2 would distinguish itself by splashing 233 Japanese aircraft. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19th, Hellcat pilots from HORNET destroyed enemy aircraft with no losses in what came to be known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.
On June 24th, while conducting raids against the Bonins Islands of Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima, VF-2 pilots downed a record 67 enemy planes in one day. HORNET participated in the Western Carolina Islands operation with air support strikes on Peleliu. By September 1944, HORNET VF-2 had the distinction of being the top fighter squadron in the Pacific with more total victories and more “ace” pilots any other fighter squadron up to that time. Out of the VF-2s 50 pilots, 28 were confirmed aces, having scored five or more victories in aerial combat.
On the morning of February 16, 1945, HORNET kept a date the old HORNET (CV-8) had made some 34 months before when she conducted the first carrier strikes on Tokyo, neutralizing air fields and hitting shipping and targets of opportunity. Strikes began in mid-February against Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima in preparation for the Marine invasions. HORNET aircraft rocketed, bombed, and strafed positions on Iwo Jima for six straight days in direct tactical support of Marine operations there. When Iwo Jima was secure, HORNET turned her attention once again to Tokyo, pulverizing airfields in the metropolitan area.
You can read the full history here.
Standing on the Hornet means one stands on something very close to hallowed ground if one cherishes, as I do, the notion of man’s God-given right to freedom. Because of its illustrious history, when one boards the Hornet, one is already primed to be impressed. We continued to be impressed once we had the chance to meet the guests of honor.
Although the event’s organizers had put together a lovely buffet, the food paled after the Blue Angels came on board. (Incidentally, when I use the term “Blue Angels” here, I mean representatives of the entire team, both current members and newly assigned personnel, not just the fliers.) We had the pleasure of meeting the flight surgeon, a lovely woman who left my daughter jittering with excitement at the thought of one day achieving a high-level non-combat role in the military; the men who keep the Blues supplied; three active fliers (including both a woman and Fat Albert’s pilot), as well as the new crop of fliers; the public relations person; and the guy in charge of aircraft maintenance.
Despite the varied responsibilities of the people we met, all of the Blues have certain characteristics in common: First, and most obviously, they’re all lovely to look at (men and women alike). This is not quite as fatuous a comment as it sounds. The Blue team looks lovely because its members are all in superb physical condition. I’ve always found actors, actresses and models, no matter how rubbed and buffed they are, rather uninspiring because their physical attributes have no useful purpose beyond the decorative. As a utilitarian person who likes functional fitness, I’m very appreciative of people who represent the apex of the human body’s physical capacity. The Blues, every last one of them, are in top shape and it’s nice to see that. (By the way, you can see for yourself here what a glowing, healthy bunch the officers are.)
Second, without exception, these people were gentleman and ladies in the old-fashioned sense of the term. They were kind to the children and courteous to everyone. They looked us in the eye, spoke clearly, and, despite the crowds around them, made every person feel as if he, or she, was important. Considering that those of us in attendance were all crowding around the Blue Angels team like star-struck groupies, the Blues’ graciousness was especially appealing. Again, it was easy to distinguish them from the petulant stars who populate our media.
Third, and this is something I tried to emphasize for the kids on the way home, the make-up of the Blue Angels shows that reputation matters. Three different people told me that, when personnel apply to become a part of the Blue Angels, it’s their personality that is the determining factor. Regardless of their responsibilities (flying, medicine, PR, supplies, etc.), all are tops in their field before they even knock on the Blues’ door. The question for admittance, therefore, isn’t the applicant’s abilities, which are proven, but his or her personality. Since the Blues travel together 300 days a year, they have to like and respect each other. Someone who is known to be unpleasant, lazy, selfish, or who has any other personality trait that precludes being liked, respected and relied-upon in a tight unit, has no chance of joining the team. To be a Blue, it’s not enough to be good at what you do. You also have to be just plain good — a mensch, a good person, a stand-up kind of guy (or gal).
Fourth — and this is something I’ve commented upon after every interaction I’ve had with men and women in the American military — the Blues manifestly love their work. Each person with whom we spoke felt that his (or her) job has meaning and purpose. It’s so obvious that none are just grinding through their days, putting in time and waiting for the pay check. Everyone was passionate about his (or her) responsibilities, and about the Blues’ important role as a good will ambassador for the Navy. It was so apparent that the Blues are people who get up in the morning feeling as if their work matters. As in years past, I felt real envy that these people, when still young, were able to look at their skills and their values and then make a career choice that not only gives them great pleasure, but that serves their country.
And really, what more can one say? I learned some useful practice stuff (the Blues rely primarily on their carefully honed senses, not on equipment, when they perform; every team member, regardless of his, or her, primary responsibilities, has a role when the planes take to the air; Blues fly in formation across country as they go from one venue to another; etc.), but mostly I was reminded, again, that our military attracts and cultivates the best and the brightest.
UPDATE: I was remiss when I failed to point out that this event was co-sponsored by the Bay Area TAILHOOK Ready Room. It was a lovely evening, and thanks are due to all who made it possible.