The Fulbright program that is sending Shannon and me to China this year is a long-standing attempt by the US government to promote mutual understanding between our country and other nations in the world. It is, in many ways, a diplomatic effort. It's run by the State Department, and Fulbright Scholars are oriented and guided by the US Consulate in the countries they're placed.
This connection to the Consulate here in Hong Kong scored us an invitation to a reception on the USS George Washington, one of the US Navy's premier aircraft carriers. The evening was filled with lots of fascinating experiences.
We took a 40-minute ferry along with hundreds of other formally-dressed guests out to the ship, which was anchored off shore (I guess you don't bring a nuclear powered ship right into a harbor). The seas were very rough, and it was a little dicey getting off the ferry onto the ship (which was rock solid in the swells). Once aboard, we climbed up some steep ladders (not easy for the ladies in skirts and heels) and entered the main deck, which is basically the big garage for all the planes.
The scale is immense, and the impression was heightened by the pomp. We accessed the reception area by first walking through a double line of sailors at attention and then through a long double line of all the state flags.
Inside the reception; one pilot noted how strange
it was to see the Chinese flag hanging inside the ship
At the reception were bunches of Americans living in Hong Kong as well as a number of sailors, Navy pilots, member of the other services there on a joint operation and Navy officers (there was also a small group of officers from the Chinese Navy, including an Admiral; they were taking pictures and generally seemed pretty damned impressed).
With Capt. Mike Doyle; that's his plane!
Shannon and I went out of our way to spend our time talking with the military folks, who were gracious hosts. We learned that pilots have a 3-foot by 3-foot window they basically aim to get their head through when coming in for a landing. Not easy at night, in rough seas and gusty winds. We learned that when anchored as they were, with most of the crew on shore for R&R, they can mobilize and deploy in less than 12 hours. They recently had such a quick deployment when they had to leave Singapore to go help with the floods in Thailand. Out of 5000 crew members, only one didn't make it onto the ship. We also learned that the 5000-member crew would, on its own, stand as the 17th largest navy in the world.
Not being currently engaged in battle, the ship basically goes around projecting power ("we can go anywhere in international waters, so we do," was roughly how one pilot described it). But they also have a soft power mission, and they see shore leave as an opportunity for the people of other countries to learn about Americans by interacting with the sailors. In that respect, the mission is similar to the Fulbright program.
Planes on the flight deck;
Hong Kong in the background
One highlight of the night was the plane lift. This huge platform carries planes between the flight deck and the main deck in a most impressive manner. It takes less than three seconds to go up and down the roughly 40-foot span. And it makes this incredible rumbling sound, like something you'd expect to hear from an Imperial Star Destroyer. And, we got to ride on it! Almost made me spill my drink.
The Color Guard descended part of the way down on the plane lift
Another highlight was a conversation on the ferry back to shore. There were only about 10 of us on the boat, and a guy in a blazer asks us if we had a good time. We say we did, and then Shannon asks if he's in the Navy. "Yes, I'm the Commanding Officer." Yeah, he's in the Navy! We learned all sorts of interesting things talking to Capt. Lausman.
View from plane lift at flight deck level; you can see
the operator at the bottom; how happy was he to be moving
tipsy civilians up and down on that thing?
All in all, it was a great time. It was refreshing to be among a huge group of Americans again. It was also compelling to see the presentation of colors (dramatically descending on the plane lift) and hear the national anthem. And the whole operation is really remarkable. Setting aside all sorts of questions about appropriate use of force, spending on the military, etc., one can't fail to be impressed by US Naval power.