SAN FRANCISCO --
The rest of America might be celebrating Columbus’ discovery of the New World in early October. But not this city. Residents here will be cheering a sea of Marines, sailors and Coast Guardsmen when Fleet Week 2011 pulls into port.
San Francisco Fleet Week festivities are set for Oct. 6-11 and this year’s event looks to top all others in the 30-year history. Initial estimates are calling for more than 10,000 servicemembers from the maritime services requesting permission to go ashore in the West Coast port city. That includes a contingent of Marines from Camp Pendleton. The will represent what the Commandant of the Marine Corps has called “the middleweight fighter." This particular contingent will be led by Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, commanding general.
“I love San Francisco,” said Spiese, the commander for 1st MEB and deputy commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, the Marine force based in southern California. “It’s a great city, so the opportunity to be up there, wearing the uniform is absolutely perfect. Frankly, I can’t wait.”
When they land, Marines plan on showing the area residents just what it is they can do when it comes to reacting to natural disasters. In fact, senior leaders from the city and county will join Marines and Navy to further solidify plans and concepts for the Defense Department to come to the aide of the city when the “big one” occurs.
“San Francisco Fleet Week is going to highlight medical surge,” Spiese explained. “That’s one of the great capabilities we have on the shelf inside the force… we’re working specifically on an exchange with medical professionals in the area so they can have an appreciation of what we’re able to bring in the event of a natural disaster.”
Spiese explained that Marines and their Navy medical staff will have their mobile surgical suites displayed on the city’s Marina Green, open for the nearly 1.5 million anticipated visitors to see for themselves.
But, it’s not all work and no play.
On tap this year are The Navy’s Blue Angels and parades of all kinds from a parade of ships to marching bands through the city’s North Beach area, as part of the Italian Heritage Parade. Concerts are going to be held in various parts of the city. The 49’ers will host their own salute to the military and are plans for a fitness challenge at Golden Gate Park.
Pete Paffrath is the San Francisco Fleet Week fundraising director and was deeply involved in last year’s celebrations. He was able to catch the 1st Marine Division band’s performance in Huntington Park. The all-volunteer staff didn’t have much in the way of advertising the event, but once the band started, they didn’t need it.
“People, once they heard the band playing, started opening up their doors and came out to listen to the band,” Paffrath said. “Tourists who were walking down the street were doing the exact same thing.”
It’s all part of a 30-year Fleet Week history in the city that’s being revitalized. Three decades ago, then-Mayor Diane Feinstein initiated Fleet Week to honor the forces afloat that called San Francisco home. Then, there was a smattering of Defense Department installations in the region. These days, due to base realignments and closures, there are only a handful of military units left in the bay area.
Fleet Week itself went through changes through the years. The celebration that hosted thousands of sailors and Marines dwindled to little more than an air show, said Catharine Hooper, Operations Manager for San Francisco Fleet Week Association.
Recently, though, through the efforts of retired Maj.Gen. Mike Myatt, Fleet Week’s taken on a renewed emphasis. The retired Marine general, who serves as the president and chief executive officer for the Marines Memorial Association based in San Francisco, took on the responsibility of bringing Fleet Week back to its glory in San Francisco. He said last year’s turnout of more than a million visitors for Fleet Week was impressive by nearly any standard.
“It’s eye watering. It really is,” Myatt explained. “It just makes you feel good. It reinforces what we tell people about the quality of these youngsters today. They’re the greatest of their generation.”
Aside from the planning and exercises to ensure that city residents are assured that their maritime forces are ready to respond when the big one hits, it’s still about honoring the sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who protect the nation.
“9/11 happened, which, clearly was tragic, but some really good things have come out of it one of them is acknowledging the role of the military in everybody’s life.” Hooper explained. “Last year, what I saw was so different than years before.”
Hooper said that Marines, sailors and Coast Guardsmen were stopped in the streets, residents shaking their hands. Servicemembers had a hard time buying their own drinks or picking up their own restaurant tabs.
“And they would stop them and sort of extend their hand and say ‘thank you,’” Hooper added. “Now we see this in YouTube and little clips like that in airports, but that’s there. It happened right here in this city.”
Liam Tiernan is a volunteer for the San Francisco Fleet Week Association and local business owner. He owns a pub and restaurant down by the city’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf. He said during last year’s Fleet Week, his establishment was full of uniforms and they were welcomed with open arms.
“It’ll just do your heart good,” Tiernan explained. “It’ll make you proud. They’re very professional, very courteous, well trained and well behaved. We just had a ball with them. They had a very hard time buying a drink. I don’t think any of them put their hand on their wallet, which is the way it should be.”