A great day by the Bay

I woke the family up bright and early today for a very special adventure.  Courtesy of the Navy League, we headed over to Pier 30/32 in San Francisco to be part of a contingent of official ship’s greeters for the Bonhomme Richard.

If the name sounds familiar to you, it’s because the Bonhomme Richard is the third ship in the US Navy to bear this name, and it’s a very honorable lineage.  The first Bonhomme Richard was one of the first ships commissioned during the Revolutionary War, and it was the ship on which Capt. John Paul Jones sailed (and fought) during the Battle against HMS Serapis.  From the Bonhomme Richard‘s own website, here is the story of that exciting battle:

On June 19, 1779, Jones sailed BONHOMME RICHARD from L’ Orient, France accompanied by ALLIANCE, PALLAS, VEGEANCE, and CERF. Their mission: to escort troop transports and merchant vessels under convoy to Bordeaux, France and cruise against the British in the Bay of Biscay. Forced to return to port for repairs, Jones’ squadron sailed again August 14, 1779. Going northwest around the British Isles into the North Sea and down the eastern seaboard of Great Britain, the squadron swiftly took 16 merchant vessels as prizes. On the evening of September 23, 1779, they encountered the Baltic Fleet of 41 near the English shore of Flamborough Head. Sailing for England, the Fleet was under convoy of the newly built frigate HMS SERAPIS (50 guns) and the small sloop COUNTESS OF SCARBOROUGH (20 GUNS).

Before the British fleet could respond, BONHOMME RICHARD lashed out at SERAPIS igniting a bitter struggle that would last the entire night. Early in the battle, the guns of Jones’ main battery exploded, temporarily disabling his ship. Under gunned, Jones’ relied on decisive naval strategies and the might of his crew to out-fight the more powerful SERAPIS. To offset the SERAPIS’ speed, Jones lashed his flagship alongside and continued the fight long after his subordinates regarded the situation as hopeless.

Burning, sinking, and scattered with the dead and wounded, BONHOMME RICHARD lit up the darkness with a constant barrage. Jones struggled to keep his vessel afloat and, in one instance, an overwhelming number of prisoners in hold threatened to rush the deck to save from drowning. Jones defied all odds and continued the fight against Captain Pearson’s SERAPIS.

In the final hour, BONHOMME RICHARD’S mast was hit above the top-sail. Along with her Colors, a large section of the mast came crashing to the deck near Jones, feet. In response to the downfallen colors, SERAPIS called out, “Have you struck your Colors?” Resoundingly, John Paul Jones exclaimed, “Struck Sir? I have not yet begun to fight!” And fight they did. With newfound will, his crew delivered decisive blows from all sides and aloft. Jones’ sent 40 Marines and Sailors into the rigging with grenades and muskets.

Decimated, SEPARIS could not avoid defeat and at 2230 she struck her Colors. Victorious, John Paul Jones commandeered SERAPIS and sailed her to Holland for repairs. Sadly, BONHOMME RICHARD sank at 1100 on September 24, 1779, never to rise from her watery grave. This epic battle was the American Navy’s first-ever defeat of an English ship in English waters! Rallying colonial hope for freedom, Jones’ victory established him to many as “The Father of the American Navy.”

Of such true stories are legends made.

In its current incarnation, the Bonhomme Richard is much less likely to be engaged in combat, since it is an Amphibious Assault Ship.  Again, let me have the ship’s own website explain:

USS BONHOMME RICHARD (LHD-6) is an Amphibious Assault Ship. The primary mission of our ship is to embark, deploy and land elements of a Marine landing force in amphibious assault operations by helicopter, landing craft, amphibious vehicle or any combination of these means.

BONHOMME RICHARD was uniquely designed to support assault from the sea against defended positions ashore. She is able to sail in harm’sway and provide a rapid buildup of combat power ashore in the face of opposition. The United States maintains the largest and most capable amphibious force in the world. The Wasp-class are the largest amphibious ships in the world.

As you can imagine from reading the above mission statement, the ship is huge.  It weighs in at 40,500 tons (which is measured by displacement), stands as tall as a 13 story building, and is 844 feet long.  When fully loaded, it can carry 2,000 Marines (in addition to its own crew), 40 planes and helicopters, and I lost track of the number of landing craft and amphibious vehicles it can carry too.

Loading a ship of this size and with this purpose is not a higgledy-piggledy job, with things packed in however they fit.  Instead, everything needs to be loaded in reverse order, so that, at the ship’s ultimate destination, the things the Marines will need first can be offloaded first.  That sounds like a hard enough logistical challenge, but it’s frequently made even more difficult by the fact that plans change as the ship is being loaded or after it already has been loaded.  To anyone who has ever struggled to pack the family car for vacation, you can only imagine magnitude of the Bonhomme Richard‘s task.

So, there you have the ship, in all its glory.  And what about Navy League official greeters?  Well, the Navy treats Navy Leaguers like VIPs.  We were in the “first to board” group, and went to the official briefing in the Officer’s Mess.  If I understood things correctly, assembled in that room were all the ship’s officers and Chiefs.  They were gathered there to hear briefings from representatives from the San Francisco Police, from the company charged with supporting the docks for the Navy, from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (“NCIS”), and from the Navy League.

The briefings lived up to their names in that they were brief and informative.  The most fascinating fact I heard was that, on Saturday alone, 1.5 million people gathered in San Francisco to watch the Blue Angels fly.  That’s a staggering number.  It explains whys Supervisor Chris Daly’s annual efforts to stop the Blue Angels routinely meet with defeat, even from the liberal San Francisco political scene.  The amount of money flowing into the City for this single weekend is staggering.  Only a suicidal politician would destroy the most lucrative week in the City’s annual calendar.

After the briefing, Captain Neil Parrott himself took the Navy League contingent on a tour of the ship.  He was a charming and informative guide.  It is obvious that he loves his job, since he spoke with such pleasure about the ship itself and about his responsibilities on the ship.  He also gave my children the exquisite pleasure of sitting in the Captain’s own chair.  It was at that moment that my daughter suddenly realized that our host wasn’t just a well-dressed tour guide but was, in fact, really and truly the ship’s captain.

Listening to Capt. Parrott enthuse about his work, I was struck by the fact that the manifest pleasure he takes in his job has been evident on every ship’s tour we’ve ever taken, either as members of the general public or as Navy League guests.  Whether we’re talking to officers or enlisted personnel, and whether we’re on a Coast Guard Buoy Tender, a Destroyer, an Amphibious Assault Vessel or, frankly, a rowboat, every person seems to know his or her job inside and out, and to feel that the job is supremely interesting.

How many of us can say that about our lives?  And, in fact, their jobs are interesting.  If I were to waffle on about my job as a lawyer, people’s eyes would roll back into their heads and they’d pass out from boredom.  Hearing a captain describe his ship, however, is utterly fascinating.

The enthusiasm and sense of purpose and camaraderie that radiates from the officers and crew, career and enlisted, Navy and Marine, truly puts the lie to the whole political ideology that tries to paint our military men and women as befuddled, ignorant, child-like people, snatched from their ordinary lives and forced to serve an evil war machine.

While I’m sure that each ship holds its share of malcontents or people who just happen to be having a bad day, the fact is that, when you see face after face showing pride and purpose, you begin to get the sense that the people on the ship are there because they want to be, and that’s true whether they’re in it for the long term or just the short haul.  Frankly, your average corporation would do well if it was as neatly structured as the military and had employees as committed and knowledgeable as those gathered to serve in the Navy and Marines.

So thank you very much to the Navy League, and to the Bonhomme Richard for making today a wonderful day.