SAN DIEGO -- The U.S. Navy made a good first impression on a group of civilian visitors during a recent tour of Naval Air Station North Island here.
The visitors were part of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a group of specially selected civilian leaders who spend a week visiting military installations to learn about the U.S. military. The 54 participants of the conference's 69th iteration toured stateside military bases April 24 to May 1.
They arrived in San Diego April 29 and toured the naval air station the following day. Prior to San Diego, the group visited with the Coast Guard in Yorktown, Va.; the Air Force at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.; the Marines at Parris Island, S.C.; and the Army at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Naval Air Station North Island is home to several famous naval assets, among them the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier; the older USS Nimitz; the USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault and command ship; and two Los Angeles-class nuclear submarines, the USS Asheville and the USS Topeka.
"There are some amazing craft at this installation," Vice Adm. Terrance Etnyre, commander of the Naval Surface Force in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in his welcoming remarks aboard the USS Belleau Wood.
Naval Air Station North Island is home to 100,000 Navy and Marine personnel, 100,000 family members, and 200,000 naval retirees. It also is the master station for all helicopters on the West Coast. The Belleau Wood's commanding officer, Navy Capt. Robert Ford, described the base as "the heart of the Navy and Marine Corps."
After breakfast in the ship's Ward Room, the JCOC participants toured the huge vessel. They received a briefing on fire safety and observed a simulated fire drill, in which designated personnel from all over the ship rushed in seconds after the alarm sounded, jumped into firefighting gear, and hurried off to their duties.
"In the Navy, every sailor is a fireman," a briefer said. "The main thing is to keep the ship in the fight."
After the fire drill, it was back to the flight deck to watch the ship sail under the Coronado Bridge, a huge half circle that spans San Diego Bay. On the way, they passed the USS Ronald Reagan, which the group would visit later; the USS Nimitz; and the USS Midway, now decommissioned and docked for public tours.
The USS Belleau Wood deploys as the flagship of an expeditionary strike group. It can carry a complete Marine battalion, along with all the supplies and equipment needed in an assault, and land them by helicopter or amphibious craft. The 820 foot flight deck can accommodate up to 30 Marine Corps helicopters and AV-8 Harriers.
Like the Midway, the Belleau Wood is scheduled to be decommissioned in October 2005 to make way for a new class of amphibious assault ships.
In the ship's Combat Information Center, the group witnessed a combat simulation in which a hypothetical tyrannical state launches an air attack on the vessel and the crew is forced to defend the ship.
One JCOC participant from each of two groups was chosen to serve as "tactical action officer" of the operation. Sitting in the TAO's chair before a full array of screens and digital readouts, with advisers on each side, the TAO-for-a-day had to direct the battle based on the information he received from the crew and three radar screens that were tracking the enemy aircraft and surface vessels.
The JCOC participants got to see firsthand what it was like to be in full battle mode as two enemy fighters departed the hostile nation's airspace with unknown intentions.
The ship's crew called out situational updates and presented the TAO with options ranging from firing warning shots or deploying "chaff" -- tiny strips of metal foil used to confuse enemy radar -- to divert enemy fire, to more drastic measures, such as shooting down the aircraft, as the hostile craft "locked on" the Belleau Wood and prepared to fire.
A cry of, "vampire, vampire, vampire," rang out, indicating inbound missiles, and the JCOC TAO ordered the hostile craft taken out. As the blips on the radar screen disappeared, a cheer rose up from the group.
"Boy, that was something," TAO-for-a-day and JCOC participant Kurt Moyland said.
In the final demonstration of the day, the JCOC participants watched as a "landing craft, air cushioned" amphibious vehicle came roaring out of the well below the stern amidst a spray of water and mist. The small vessel spent the next several minutes moving forward and aft alongside the ship so the JCOC could get a good look at it.
LCACs are used to transport Marines and equipment to the beach and can travel at speeds up to 80 knots.
"When the president wants to send in the Marines, he used to ask, 'where are the carriers?'" Vane told the group in closing remarks. "Today he asks, 'where is the amphibious strike group?' I hope we gave you a taste of that today," he said.
Following the LCAC demonstration, the JCOC participants disembarked from the USS Belleau Wood in small boats, launched from the same well as the LCAC they had observed.
"We have all been ... amazed and impressed," one JCOC participant remarked. "Amazed by the technology and impressed with the men and women who people the U.S. military."