Little did I know, as I enjoyed a reception on board the aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, that around 6 hours later, North Korea would be firing test missiles into the Japan Sea. It wasn't much comfort that the missiles landed closer to Russia than to Otaru, the seacoast city of Hokkaido where the Kitty Hawk was docked.
(Unknown to me at the time was the information put out by the International Action Center that "on June 14, the U.S. Air Force held 'a quality control test' for its 500 Minuteman III missiles. One of these missiles traveled 4,800 miles towards the central Pacific, and three test warheads landed near the Marshall Islands." Yet, the U.S. is going ahead with sanctions again North Korea.)
In addition, being a pacifist, I had somewhat ambivalent feelings about celebrating Independence Day on a warship. Nevertheless, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that ended up being fascinating, particularly talking to a number of officers at the party.
One question I had for the officers was about their ribbons, and I got explanations about what they meant - all the way from expert in shooting (near the bottom) to a commendation for serving in Iraq. Several officers told me how tedious it is to rearrange the ribbons each time they receive a new one, since they have to be in a set order. (Various ribbons and their order of preference can be seen at: U.S. Navy Medals and Ribbons. Also, if they get worn, they have to be replaced, at the expense of the officers. When wearing their dress uniforms, they must attach medals, which is even more time-consuming, although they assured me that the medals can all be mounted together.
When we went up to the flight deck, where my Japanese friends asked another officer, a mechanic for the jets, about the rectangular sections of the deck that were standing at an angle. He explained that they were to prevent the exhaust coming out of the jets with enormous thrust from sending any of the crew rolling into the sea! He told us all about the safety precautions. Of course there are initially classes on safety. However, after that, anyone who's going to be working on the flight deck simply sits and watches for a number of days. After that, they are taken around by a buddy, literally hand held as they learn the operations. Finally, they are ready to work on their own. Even then, there can be terrible accidents. He described one he saw in which the cable that catches the jets as they're landing accidentally broke and cut off the leg of one of the crew members. He assured us that he's seen such a hideous accident only once in his 12 years of service.
Throughout the evening, there were a number of ceremonial activities, including speeches by dignitaries and the cutting of the cake. The finale was a fireworks display in the harbor which we saw from the flight deck (which would have been more impressive if I didn't live near the place where Sapporo has a huge display of fireworks, that go on for nearly an hour, three Fridays every July).
We only got to talk with one female officer, a helicopter pilot, and I only saw one other. One of the female crew members who was cleaning the washroom told us that there were 150 women in the lower ranks and 50 more in higher ranks, although she wasn't sure of the exact number of officers. A friend who visited a different day talked with one who was truly enthusiastic about her job, which turned out to be lowering and raising the anchor. I would have liked the chance to talk with more women to find out what it was like being at sea as a minority.
As we were leaving, we saw numbers of sailors returning from Otaru with shopping bags. Probably several had bought gifts from the many glass factories in the city to send back to friends at home. We also saw a large "63" in bright white lights on the side of the ship and asked about it. The ship was the 63rd aircraft carrier built by the U.S. Navy. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to board the ship before it is retired in 2007.
For more about the Navy's oldest active warship, see the official website of the USS Kitty Hawk.
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