The United States Navy and Coast Guard held its annual Fleet Week celebration from May 25 to May 30. The celebration took place in different boroughs of New York City and involved several vessels and commands.
Fleet Week is special event mainly hosted by the US Navy. However, alongside the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps and foreign navies are sometimes present. This year, the Canadian navy had one of their ships at port. Fleet Week is generally a public event where people could take tours inside the ships and meet some of the sailors. Aside from that, it is also a celebration for the sailors, who are given extended liberty to explore the city.
Liberty is Navy jargon for time-off. They could spend for themselves inside the ship, but most sailors use liberty to go out on the town. It is a very common experience in the Navy to venture different cities when the ship is in port, and ships dock at ports all over the world. For Fleet Week, the ships docked at Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. To some of the sailors, taking port in New York City was as fresh as stopping by Japan or Bahrain.
Fleet Week began with the Parade of Ships where all the performing vessels sailed together down the Hudson River. Then they would break off and port in their respective ports and boroughs. On the first day of arrival, the sailors were greeted by volunteers and supporters providing an immense amount of food and gifts. The following days, the public was able to enter the dock where they could see and experience the Navy first-hand.
Though there are scheduled events, the real festivities are what happens for the sailors on liberty. As part of the celebration, sailors are mandated to wear their service dress uniform where going out. For the summer season, that meant their dress white, so the sailors really stood out when touring the city.
New York is known for being very welcoming during Fleet Week. Fleet Week happens is other US cities such Baltimore and San Diego, but sailors have reported that New York is the “real” Fleet Week.
While out in town, the sailors were often stopped by individuals looking that photos with the sailors. The sailors travel in groups, so it’s common so see one civilian take a photo with five or more sailors. There’s a web feature known as “Selfie with a Sailor” where people post their photos with sailors during Fleet Week on social media for chances win prizes. But aside from the marketing, photos of and with the sailors are mainly done on the sheer attractive and appreciation of these young men and women.
Several events and specials are given out for sailors that come. Restaurants offer free meals or discounts. Bars have specials on drinks. Brooklyn had a special block party for the sailors that saw some celebrity faces. One sailor snapped a photo with Norman Reedus from The Walking Dead. Some sailors managed to catch Tony Danza in his shop in Little Italy. Everywhere they went, practically glowing in their dress whites, the sailors were center of much attention.
In order to achieve maximum liberty for the sailors on the ships, Navy reservist from Coastal Riverine Squadron Eight (CRS8) were called upon to provide a full security detail for the ship at port. CRS8 provided security in all three boroughs standing guard for twenty-four hours until the ships departed. The expeditionary sailors of CRS8 and other coastal riverine units are habitual in provided this kind of service down range in places in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Sailors of Naval Expeditionary Combat Command like those in CRS8 have a special visual presence. They wear the green Type III Navy Working Uniform, and they are fully armed carrying M4A1 carbines, M9 pistols, and full body armor. Many of these sailors are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
CRS8 was the Navy’s security force, but was other service alongside to provide total security. The Coast Guard had patrol boats all day and night on the waterside of the pier. The New York Police Department (NYPD) had patrol officer stationed at the different piers where they provided extra security outside the military perimeter. Naval Criminal and Investigative Service (NCIS) deployed some agents in the event of an actual crime, and the New York Port Authority Police would stand the same watches with the expeditionary sailors.
Fleet Week was definitely a finer event for the sailors. Everyone managed to get to liberty and experience the city, even the expeditionary sailors as a liberty was scheduled in the watch rotations. The sailor clichés were definitely present, and just about every sailor that came back to their ships did so inebriated, but there was one place in lower Manhattan that most sailors made time attend. It’s an old place where 21st Century started.
Downtown Manhattan, and New York entirely, has the new Freedom Tower overlooking the Big Apple. The Freedom Tower in the new World Trade Center building that replace one of the original twin towers. The original foundation of the other tower was turned into a beautiful memorial. The foundation where the tower once stood is now a memorial fountain with the names those who perished on that fateful day. Next to the memorial is a museum with artifacts from the attacks including remnants of the buildings and old steel beams. A photo gallery was constructed inside commemorating the 2,996 people who died all those years ago. For the millions of people of New York, what happened on September 11, 2001 is something that forever engrained in their memory as the ultimate horror.
For the sailors that managed the visit, especially those from New York like myself, the museum and the memorial had a haunting presence. 9/11 was representative in their uniforms. Every service member since has been awarded the Global War on Terror service ribbon because, almost fifteen years on, the pain and sorrow as not fully healed.
Fleet Week was definitely a celebration, but at the same time, it felt like a pilgrimage. Many of the young sailors had never been to New York. They never had the Brooklyn pizza, or heard the New York accent. However, just about all of them joined, directly or indirectly, from 9/11. It’s not every day where a service member could visit the ground zero of their military career. I was a child when I left New York. I returned a sailor.