The USS Kearsarge is a Wasp class, multipurpose amphibious assault ship so big that it’s sometimes mistaken for an aircraft carrier.
Home to sailors, Marines and helicopters, it launched in 1992 and offloaded the first U.S. peacekeeping forces in Kosovo in 1999. It served as a flagship in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2003 during the Iraq War, traveled to Haiti in 2008 in the aftermath of hurricanes. On Monday, the Kearsarge pulled out from its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, and headed for New York, where it docked Wednesday for the start of Fleet Week 2017.
NYC’s fleet week began in the 1980s, though Lt. Commander Lauren Cole of the U.S. Navy’s public affairs team couldn’t say exactly why beyond community outreach. A 1998 Daily News article says the week was “first established to drum up support for a Navy base in New York and to show appreciation of the nation’s armed forces.”
Regardless of origin, Fleet Week’s romantic reception in New York is culturally established, perhaps best exemplified in the WWII-era shore-leave musical “On the Town” or the 2002 “Anchors Away” episode of “Sex and the City” in which the ladies encounter young men in uniform.
But what does Fleet Week mean for sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen coming into port?
On Wednesday morning, the Kearsarge was slowly emptying of personnel at Pier 88. Petty Officer Danielle Lawrence, 22, was waiting for transportation with fellow sailors on the West Side Highway. Much of her time in port would be filled by Navy events, she said, but she looked forward to tourist activities and maybe catching a baseball game, though like our mayor, she’s a Red Sox fan. Mostly, she looked forward to getting out of the cramped “racks” where sailors sleep and live, at least for a bit. It’s still the Navy, so personnel can have an 0100 or 0200 curfew, depending on rank.
Two higher ranked chiefs strode confidently down 46th Street, passing a group of three giddy sailors discussing how to spend their four hours off the ship — “Times Square? Statue of Liberty?”
“Gentlemen,” said the first chief, Chad Schmidt, somewhat crisply.
The chiefs walked briskly past the barren blocks of car dealerships and the Landmark Tavern bearing a “Welcome to New York” sign picturing bold-looking servicemen.
In Times Square, they turned right on 7th Avenue, exchanging nods with police officers as they explored. Schmidt said he had been to NYC for a previous Fleet Week just after 9/11, when the reception was enormous. What did he do? “I don’t remember,” Schmidt said, laughing. “I was a younger soldier then.” He had a hotel room this time, which can be granted upon request though it’s not as cheap as the free berth on ship.
Elsewhere in Times Square, other pairs of sailors — they’re encouraged not to travel alone — were beginning to experience the pleasures of life off the Kearsarge. Peering at the wares on a stand of NYC souvenir pictures, Chief Petty Officer James Baldwin considered options.
A chance to be a tourist for a day
“What was the one theater show we were possibly going to see?” he asked fellow Chief Petty Officer Chris Price. There were two options: “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Book of Mormon.”
They had been deployed in the Middle East, and though that included port calls in Dubai and the Philippines, among other places, “it can get boring,” Baldwin said. Watches to stand, equipment to maintain, the ship to clean. Hit the gym, stay in your routine. NYC was fresh air.
Pulling into the harbor, Baldwin said all he could think of was what it must have been like to come in by boat to Ellis Island, and “how much the city has grown since then.” He shook his head in amazement.
Not far away, two lieutenant commanders who gave their names only as Charles and John were having a more down to earth NYC experience — a music hawker was pushing a signed CD, which they accepted. They shook hands with the hawker and walked off in search of coffee, unaware that they’d just participated in a Fleet Week miracle: the hawker, Rashieke Thomas, hadn’t asked them for the customary donation.
“They were nice,” said Thomas, who goes by the stage name Sevion Dadon. “Very respectful. Very uplifting to the people.”
Thomas was one of various passer-by who thanked the sailors for their service as they made a brief foray into NYC civilian life. The musician said his CD included music about life in the tougher parts of the city, away from Midtown Manhattan. Maybe the sailors would listen, be intrigued and make another visit, before the Kearsarge departed once again.