Monday, October 13, 2008

Fleet Week- USS Bonhomme Richard

'You're welcome to pick one up and try one,' said the Marine, in straight tones to the small group looking in awe at three deadly machine guns.

'There's no rounds in them,' he encouraged. Still, we hesitated.

We were safe inside the belly of the USS Bonhomme Richard, one of the Navy's large amphibious assault ships. But handling a machine gun was outside of the range of experience for most of us.

And the Marine had just informed us of their firing capabilities. The mightiest one, long, black and powerful-looking, belted out 325 - 375 small grenades per minute in a range of over 2,000 metres, the middling, one of a kind that had seen service from the days of the two World Wars and through Korea and Vietnam to the present day, 450 - 550 rounds, and the lightest, 650 - 950 rounds, both with ranges of around 200 metres.

Curiosity overcame us but as we put a hand to the guns, it was obvious!

The weapons usually need two Marines each to operate,
our instructor said with a grin.

The lightest, certainly while empty, can be held by some as Ricardo, an ex-military man who happened to be in the tour group, demonstrated. Ricardo was there, he said, 'to bring my kids and show them the ship.'

Nicknamed the 'Revolutionary Gator,' the Bonhomme Richard is one of four ships in San Francisco available for tours as part of the 27th Fleet Week. Moored just below the Bay Bridge, thousands of people have been pouring inside for a glimpse of life inside an amphibious assault ship. The queues early afternoon yesterday took about an hour.

The ship, our guide said, is used to support the Marines in combat and also for humanitarian operations, being able to land people, supplies and equipment from the sea.

Once inside the cavernous hold, the Marines first showed us the machine guns and then let us clamber through one of the amphibious vehicles painted in camouflage colours. We saw controls lining the side and peered into the tiny, metalllic driver's space. Two-year-old Lewis tried on a hard hat with his mum.

Then we rounded up a ramp to the next deck where coloured pennants hung from the ceiling. Here in this huge space, crew were busy setting out tables for serving food and preparing for a reception. We passed on up another ramp and emerged onto the flight deck.

Before us stretched the flightdeck to either side. We were standing out in the bay close to the Bay Bridge with glorious views and able to wander freely. Overall the length of the ship is 844 ft and has a speed of over 20 knots.

This is where the heart of the air action occurs. Concealed below were five Harrier jets, 42 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters and six ASW helicopters. An aircraft elevator jutting out over the side brings them to the deck.

Armaments on board include two RAM launchers, two NATO Sea Sparrow launchers, two Phalanx CIWS mounts and seven machine guns. But none of that was really visible.

Today a little demonstration of firefighting equipment was going on, which particularly pleased children like four-year-old San Franciscan twins, Grant and Owen. Grant disappeared from sight beneath a helmet and visor while Owen tried on a gas mask.

Visiting a naval ship, the atmosphere is a mix of high security and friendliness. From the beginning at the top of the pier, there are armed personnel in different uniforms, some standing at the gate, others driving little buggies around. There are electronic bag checks and you have to show photo ID. But at the same time, there is a welcoming manner and, especially while standing in the queue, you see many crew in civvies who have been either out enjoying the city or are about to go out.

Inside the ship the atmosphere is relaxed. The Sailors who are guides are in their dress whites and there is only one armed guard at each end, both of whom chatted to visitors.

Over the side in the water, though, two Coast Guard ships floated close by and while we were there they were joined by a third smaller vessel. Coast Guard helicopters also made regular fly pasts at one point going almost directly over the ship.

The ship is the third frigate to bear the name 'Bonhomme Richard' and was named, says the navy's official website, after the pen name of Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France and author of Poor Richard's Almanak.

Today the full complement of crew includes 104 officers, 1,004 enlisted members and 1,894 Marines. Though for this visit to San Fran, there are a total of 1,500 Marines and Sailors aboard both the ship and the guided missile destroyer, USS Pinckney.

Captain Neil Parrott is their Commanding Officer who took up his post in June, 2007.

The first ship to bear the name Bonhomme Richard was the frigate of John Paul Jones, revered by many as the 'Father of the American Navy' for leading the navy to their first-ever defeat of an English ship in English waters! The motto of the ship, 'I have Not Yet Begun to Fight', is a quote from him during that battle in the American War of Independence.

The current ship was commissioned in 1998 and is based in San Diego, California.

This year Fleet Week coincides with the Navy's 233rd birthday and the 100th anniversary of the Great White Fleet, the historic occasion when President Theodore Roosevelt sent 16 white-painted battleships of the Atlantic Fleet on a round-the-world voyage between December 1907 and February 1909 to extol American sea power. On their way, the fleet called in to San Francisco for two months and it is this that gave rise to what is now called Fleet Week.

The point of the week is for the Navy, Marine and Cadets Corps to showcase their personnel and their capabilities and for the public to be able to meet them. It is sobering to even glimpse the realities of war and to see so many young people willing to serve their country.

As we left the ship and wandered back out onto the pier, I spoke to Jerry and Maria.

'We really loved it!' said Maria. 'This is our first time in San Francisco and we decided to come in and tour the ship. Very nice! I'm impressed!' she said.

pics show: tour guides; pennants; flight deck in front of the Bay Bridge; Ricardo, ex-military man with machine gun

For an album of pics click here

For an album of pics by Colin, professional photographer, click here
For Colin's report, see next blog

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