The Meaning of Sacrifice

Each year on November 11, leaders of the Veterans Memorial Building in Danville observe Veteran’s Day with various military exhibits and educational activities. The goal is to bridge the divide between past generations and future ones, passing along knowledge from lessons learned, sometimes at a bitter cost. Too often, our current educational system provides a brief review of a famous incident or two within a war era, and then moves on. There is little critical thinking developed from this; awareness that would help shape informed opinions for our future voting citizens and community leaders.

In addition to the great array of military equipment and informational displays, there will be two special topics of focus this year, with supporting exhibits and talks. Both will delve into the concept of citizens who take great risks and/or make extreme sacrifices to help gain freedom for their countries.

The first speaker, Cecilia Gaerlan, will discuss World War II events in the Philippines, with a special focus on the infamous Bataan Death March. Cecilia is the founder and Executive Director of the Bataan Legacy Historical Society. Its mission is to educate the public on the historical significance of Bataan and the impact of World War II in the Philippines. She was inspired by her father, Luis Gaerlan, Jr., a survivor of the Bataan Death March. The Society has developed addition high school course curriculum designed to improve student awareness of the war in the Philippines.

Many Americans are unaware that only hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, our military bases were struck in the Philippines. Within days, the Philippine Islands were invaded by a determined and vicious Imperial Japanese Army. Their goal was to capture and enslave the island quickly, paving the way for conquering all of southeast Asia to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (the Japanese version of Hitler’s Third Reich).The fundamental key to their success was a speedy conquest, keeping the US and other allied countries off-balance and unable to respond, until they achieved a position of unassailable dominance. Their plan allocated 50 days for the conquest of the main island of Luzon and capture of the capital city Manila.

But the brave U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, the majority of whom were FiIipinos, would have none of this. Out-numbered, out-gunned, deprived of food, fuel and ammunition, and with no air support, they slowed the Japanese advance to a crawl. A peace time army with antiquated weapons, they knew for a fact they could not beat the Japanese Army. But they fought to give the allies time to get more organized in the Pacific and bring in more resources to stop the Japanese advance. Finally, after months of bitter struggle, the Bataan peninsula fell in April, 1942. This was double the amount of time the original invasion plan called for.

The Japanese rounded up an estimated 75,000 captives. They were forced to march 65 miles, in triple digit temperature with 100% humidity, to a prison known as Camp O’Donnell. There were no provisions for food, water, shelter or medicine during this 5-day trek. Those who couldn’t continue the march were beaten, bayoneted, shot, some were even beheaded. Up to 10,000 Filipinos and 650 American troops died along the way, which is why it is called the Bataan Death March. 

Once inside Camp O’Donnell, another 20,000 Filipinos and 1,600 Americans died from disease and starvation. Many others were sent on cramped hell ships to slave labor encampments in Japan and Manchuria for the duration of the war.This was a steep price to pay – but they bought enough time to save Australia and New Zealand from invasion. This provided the US and its allies a secure base in Southeast Asia from which to start pushing the Japanese back.

As the Bataan Death March was underway in the Philippines, some American “payback” for Pearl Harbor was on its way to the Japanese Home Islands roughly 2,000 miles to the north.

Bob Fish will then discuss the Doolittle Tokyo Raid, arguably the most legendary air raid in US military history, and its effect on the war. Bob, a long-time resident of Danville, is a Trustee with the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda and has written several articles about the Doolittle Raid. He was instrumental in helping the Raiders be nationally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.

Immediately after the Pearl Harbor surprise attack, President Roosevelt challenged his Chiefs of Staff to retaliate against the capital city of Tokyo. He knew this would do little material damage but the psychological aspect was enormous, both to the allies and the Japanese.

The US Navy could not handle the mission by themselves as their aircraft had a very limited flight range, which would imperil what was left of the Pacific fleet. The US Army Air Forces could not handle the mission because they had no bases left in China or the Philippines from which to launch a long range raid. In a moment of inspiration, Navy officers approached the Army Air Forces and said why don’t we launch Army bombers from a floating airfield in the Pacific Ocean, i.e. a Navy aircraft carrier?

The commander of the AAF agreed and turned the Army’s part of the effort over to his best aviator, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle.

The twin engine B-25 Mitchell bomber was selected as being ideal for such a daring and hazardous undertaking. The mission profile required the aircraft to take off in the short distance of a carrier flight deck, fly 500 miles to Tokyo at a very low level over open ocean, drop the bombs and then fly on another 1,250 miles to China because it could not land back on the carrier.

On February 2, 1942, there was a single test to see if Army bombers could actually take off from an aircraft carrier. Two B-25s were launched from the USS Hornet (CV-8) off the Virginia coast. Based on that success, Doolittle had 24 aircraft modified appropriately, mostly with expanded fuel capacity.  He then sought out USAAF volunteer pilots and crewmen, telling them only they would fly a “secret mission that was highly dangerous.” There was no shortage of volunteers!

They only had a few weeks to train in Florida, learning how to do a carrier-type launch of the B-25 (full throttle, full flaps, and lots of prayer). In late March, they flew to California where 16 of the aircraft were craned aboard the USS Hornet (CV-8) at Alameda Naval Air Station. Once the Army personnel were onboard, the ship and its escort vessels steamed out of San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge being their last sight of the homeland.

A week later, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they rendezvoused with another US Navy task force commanded by VADM Bill Halsey aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6). They steamed together until reaching a point 650 miles east of Tokyo when they were discovered by Japanese picket boats. It was decided to launch the raid immediately, even though it was 150 miles further away than planned. All 80 USAAF fliers had serious doubts about having enough fuel to reach China.

But launch they did, starting at 8am, and in a storm with high winds and large waves, whose crests were coming over the bow. All 16 bombers got off safely in just an hour and most flew separately on their way to the island of Honshu.

Once they completed this air strike, they flew on to China.  The airfield where they were supposed to land was unprepared for their arrival. Hence, each bomber eventually ran out of fuel that rainy night. Most aircrews bailed out, landing in rice paddies and on mountain tops. A few had to ditch along the seacoast. Three men died during this end-of-flight period and eight were captured by the Japanese (three were executed and one other died in captivity). Within weeks, sixty nine of the eighty crewmen eventually made their way out of China and back into the US war effort.

All of these young men volunteered for what was essentially a suicide mission. Only due to a timely tail wind did they reach the Chinese coast. But the sacrifice they made, and the risks they took, had a significant impact on the war effort. American and Allied morale was boosted while the Japanese were shocked they could be attacked so easily. Only 6 weeks later, the Japanese launched a hastily prepared attack on Midway Island to prevent further air raids on their home islands. It was a disastrous defeat for them, shortening the war by years. The sacrifices of 80 volunteers provided immeasurable benefit in keeping the US, the arsenal of democracy, alive and well, ending in defeat of the Axis powers.

The Veteran’s Day activities will take place in the Veterans Memorial Building at 400 Hartz Avenue in downtown Danville on November 10, 11, and 12. The public presentations will be at 2pm on Saturday. More information is available at


What is a Hero?

I‘ve spent a great deal of my adult life trying to understand what a hero is and what makes them tick. As a Trustee of the USS Hornet Museum and the Associated Airtanker Pilots (i.e., aerial firefighters), I’m in daily contact with people who can legitimately be classified as heroes. I don’t know the formal psychological definition of the term—my perspective is more “when you see it, you know it.”

Thanks to Hollywood, most younger Americans confuse “celebrities” with “heroes.” I spend quite a bit of time on the Hornet discussing this with kids. An actor in a space movie never leaves the safety of a sound studio and is well paid for entertaining a few theater goers. The Apollo astronaut being portrayed, however, trained for years before strapping himself into a Volkswagen size craft on top of a giant rocket with 7.5 million pounds of explosive thrust. He spent many days in a highly hazardous environment, earned a modest salary, yet accomplished goals set forth by his nation, to the betterment of all mankind. It’s a pet peeve of mine when someone mixes them up.

But that doesn’t mean actors can’t be heroes. In the summer of 2001, I was in Jackson Hole, WY when the Green Knoll wildfire broke out. I watched from an adjacent mountain as the fire spread rapidly. Amidst all the smoke, flying debris and tricky winds, with airtankers and TV helicopters buzzing around, there was one civilian helicopter that repeatedly landed near homes in the area of the flames, unloaded supplies and evacuated trapped citizens and pets. It flew between the fire scene and the airport several times. The next day I learned the helicopter was flown by Harrison Ford. He was in the right place at the right time, with both the means and the desire to effect a meaningful change of destiny for citizens in his community. He’s a hero to me.

Let me share what little I’ve learned about what makes them tick. Every Medal of Honor winner has told me “I was just doing my job” or “I just wanted to save my buddy’s life.”  The fact that someone else saw it, wrote up a decoration and a medal was awarded is all secondary in the grand scheme of things.

I know for a personal fact that Neil Armstrong does not claim his walk on the moon to be heroic. He views himself as an explorer, pushing the edge of the known world to new heights, much as Charles Lindbergh did when he flew his daring solo mission across the Atlantic in 1927. Over 400,000 civilian, military and government personnel assisted this noble scientific cause and he is the first to note they made his historic walk possible. Few people know about his more heroic exploits. During a combat mission in the Korean War, his Navy jet was seriously damaged attacking a bridge deep in enemy territory, but he skillfully nursed it back into friendlier skies so he could bail out and rejoin friends in his squadron a day later.

There are certain traits that seem to be consistent with those heroes I’ve had contact with. I am always struck by their quiet confidence and humility. For those from the military, this stems from their knowledge that most of the heroes did not return from places like Normandy and Iwo Jima, nor did they get medals. Duty, honor, and sacrifice are more than just words to those who have served in combat. For those in the first responder community, almost any situation can take a sudden turn towards disaster. While good training and lots of practice keeps them reasonably safe, all too often a dispatch ends with the playing of bagpipes, so there is a strong bond among themselves to leave no one behind.

People who perform heroic acts have the ability to quite the mind and focus their thoughts on just those few essential details that determine whether the outcome is life or death. They are able to overcome their fears and make rationale decisions even in the midst of a sensory maelstrom. Rationale does not necessary mean “logical”… though sometimes it means falling on a hand grenade to save your buddies in the foxhole beside you.

All professional pilots are trained in rapid decision making skills. The USAF teaches its aviators a specific process called the OODA loop – observe, orient, decide and act. But life-threatening emergencies happen very rarely and simulated emergencies have a “shelf life” in the mind and reflexes of a pilot. The pilot-in-command must have a psyche that overrides the natural human tendency to panic when under great stress.

Captain Sullenberger’s experiences in the USAF, plus the many flight hours logged in airliners and training simulators were all invaluable in allowing him to quickly orient himself to a very fluid situation once both engines went out of commission simultaneously. But his innate mental abilities allowed him to process information quickly, determine several potential options, and reject the sub-optimal ones in favor of the most rationale solution. You can hear it in his voice on the FAA control tower tapes. His focus was finding a way to land the airliner (a huge glider, in reality), not chatting with the tower operators, or screaming at the crew or saying Hail Mary’s.alive-media-magazine-october-2016-221-sully-our-hometown-hero-michael-copeland

He quickly and rationally determined how to maneuver his aircraft into a survivable “landing envelope.”  Even more impressive was how he quickly expanded that into a “passenger survivability envelope” by putting the aircraft down near the ferries, trusting that the first responders in the water would do their jobs just as well. This Danville pilot has “the right stuff” – sounds pretty close to “hero” to me!

Way to go Sully !


Leaping Into the Abyss

Co-pilot Dick Cole stared down at the 2 x 2 foot hole in the deck of his twin-engine aircraft. While tightening his parachute straps, the throbbing sound of radial engines and the pungent smell of aviation fuel provided small level of comfort and security. His Army Air Corps crew had just flown their B-25 bomber thirteen hours on a mission that oscillated wildly between brief moments of high intensity and hours of complete boredom. It was now a very dark and stormy night outside. The aircraft was 10,000 feet over a strange and hostile land, with fuel running out and no airfield in sight. The boss motioned that it was now his turn to bail out. A feeling of stoic mindfulness engulfed the 26-year old aviator for a moment. Then, he stepped forward – turning control of his body over to gravity and of his soul to God.

While he couldn’t possibly have known it at that moment, Dick and 79 fellow airmen jumped into American legendary status and would forever more be known as Doolittle Raiders.

Crew No. 1 (Plane #40-2344, target Tokyo): 34th Bombardment Squadron, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Crew No. 1 (Plane #40-2344, target Tokyo): 34th Bombardment Squadron, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy wreaked havoc on Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II. American citizens were outraged and demanded the U.S. government do something. Emotions were heightened by the fear that Japan would invade Hawaii or the west coast. President Roosevelt was keenly aware he needed to harness this emotion to build a war effort that would help our allies in Europe as well as Asia. He challenged the top military leaders to devise a counter-attack against Tokyo. But he could not afford to order a full scale military strike since our nation was woefully unprepared for major combat operations.

In this case, navy aircraft had a limited flight range, which would jeopardize the aircraft carriers that launched them. The Army, however, had lost its main airfields in the Philippines and had no air base within range of Japan.

Several weeks later, Navy Captains Francis Low and Donald Duncan came up with a creative solution. They crafted a 30-page handwritten plan and briefed Lt. Gen Hap Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces. He assigned Lt. Col Jimmy Doolittle to improve it and carry out the necessary arrangements. Jimmy Doolittle, a highly respected aviation pioneer, was the perfect man to orchestrate this complex and harrowing mission. He was the boss, a master of calculated risk.

Within weeks, the Navy assigned their newest aircraft carrier, USS Hornet CV-8, to the Top Secret “special aviation project”. The Army requisitioned 24 B-25 Mitchell bombers and their volunteer air crews and sent them to Florida for special training. Naval flight instructor Lt Henry Miller showed the astonished pilots how to launch the aircraft with just 500 feet of runway, instead of the normal 2,500 feet.

On March 31, 1942, the units converged on the Naval Air Station in Alameda. The next day, 16 of the Army bombers were loaded aboard the Hornet, as well as 134 Army air crew and support personnel. On April 2, the Hornet and seven escorts ships steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge on heading 270 degrees – due west. When the commanding officer of the Hornet, Captain Marc Mitscher, announced over the ship’s loud speaker their destination was Tokyo, a huge cheer went up from the navy men. A large sign was painted on the superstructure that simply said “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Ten days later, the Hornet task force merged with another out of Pearl Harbor headed by the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and overall command of the combined flotilla fell to the fighting admiral, VADM Bull Halsey.

Several days after that, on April 18, 1942, the force was discovered by Japanese picket boats several hundred miles farther from shore than expected. In the midst of a northern Pacific storm, with gale force winds, driving rain and waves cresting over the bow of the Hornet, the Army bombers were launched. The extra distance presented a serious issue for the air crews. It meant they would have to fly over Tokyo in broad daylight and would not be able to reach their intended destinations in China. Even though the mission was now just short of being suicidal, none of the young Army Air Corps volunteers backed out.ALIVE - Hornet B-25 launch USAF92987  (crop)

Four hours later, 64 American bombs rained down on military and industrial targets in several Japanese cities. The actual physical damage was light. But the shock to the Japanese psychological mindset was heavy, as they never expected to be attacked during the entire war, much less at the very beginning. American citizens, and her allies, received a huge morale boost. This carried into building a massive war effort that would defeat all the Axis countries. Pearl Harbor was well avenged!

None of the bombers were shot down. Fifteen struggled to reach China (one detoured to Russia where it landed safely). A couple crash landed, although most crews chose to bail out while the engines still had fuel. 69 of the 80 crewmen returned to active duty status with the Army (and its post-war successor, the US Air Force). Three were killed in the crash landings, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of those were executed and one died of starvation in prison but four returned home following Japan’s surrender.

After World War II, the Raiders continued on with their lives, focused on the same things as everyone else – building a career, getting married, having a family, and saving money for retirement. They held reunions almost every year, enjoying the strong bond forged by their amazing shared experience. As time passed, the Raider ranks began to thin.

In 2013, with only a handful of men left, many citizens wanted to publicly recognize them for their courageous service. Based on significant veteran support, the U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal to the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. On May 23, 2014, President Obama signed the bill – with 98-year old Dick Cole standing right behind him!ALIVE - DR-CGM Obama Cole WH signing May 2014

On April 15 of this year, the actual gold medal was presented to the Raiders in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. A few days later, that same medal was presented to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force for permanent display. Of course, it was Dick Cole who handed the precious medal and certificate to the museum director. Somewhere nearby in spirit, “the boss” was smiling – his boys had successfully completed one last mission.

To paraphrase another American hero, Dick’s one small step was a giant leap for the preservation of world democracy. He and the other 79 Raiders are highly deserving of this national recognition before they all pass into the realm of history.


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SIDEBAR: One of Life’s Moments

During the April 15 Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave a particularly poignant presentation, noting the raid’s origins were the SF Bay Area. Afterward, I approached her to offer congratulations – and present her with a Hornet Museum challenge coin. Well, in the military culture, when a person hands over a challenge coin, the recipient must either reciprocate with their coin or buy a drink for the offeror. So I said “well, I guess thNancy Pelosi and Bob DR CGM ceremony (crop) copyis means you owe me a drink next time we meet.” Ms. Pelosi didn’t miss a beat – with a sly grin, she said “Not so fast Bob,” and handed me her challenge coin! It was at that moment her aide chose to take this picture – we had a mutual chuckle, although my grin was fading fast as I wondered if she would bring her 434 fellow House Representatives to the bar for a free drink on me. Stay tuned!

Bob Fish is a Trustee of the USS Hornet Museum, which held its own Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on April 25, honoring the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders in the SF Bay Area.

Step Into History: 45th Anniversary of Apollo 11

The motto of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda seems straightforward. People often think it applies only to the venerable World War II aircraft carrier itself, since it had fought in many famous WWII Pacific Ocean battles and did three tours of duty in the Vietnam War.DSC_4538

However, of equal importance, is hearing stories and learning lessons from people who served on the ship or were involved in its historical actions. In July 1969, the USS Hornet (CVS-12) recovered the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon’s surface, it was the first time in history that humans had set foot on a heavenly body other than earth. This epic event will be remembered for the rest of mankind’s existence.

In order to “transfer” some of that 1960’s excitement, knowledge, and inspiration to young Americans, the museum holds a special event every 5th year on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight. A moon-walking astronaut always attends as the keynote speaker, augmented by a more recent member of the NASA astronaut corps.
[<photo 1> Pier view of Hornet]DSC_4575

This year, on July 26, Buzz Aldrin was the featured Apollo guest at Splashdown 45. Bay Area residents enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet, listen to, and even get a book signed by the second of 12 men who walked on the moon. This popular event was also graced by the presence of Bay Area shuttle astronaut Yvonne Cagle. Both astronauts were former members of the US Air Force and were “piped aboard” in a traditional Navy welcoming ceremony with local Navy League Sea Cadets acting as sideboys.
[<photo 2> Buzz saluting cadets]

Months before the event, the Hornet Museum had teamed up with the Alameda school district to hold a space-related essay contest. The question was “Why I want to be an astronaut when I grow up”. The age bracket winners were Grace Tauscher and Khushi Randev. Each was personally introduced to Buzz Aldrin and had their photo taken with him during Splashdown 45.DSC_4609
[<photo 3> Grace & Buzz]

Many organizations brought educational exhibits or interactive displays, ensuring a large Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) component. Hornet’s youth programs have always augmented normal classroom teaching with tactile activities whenever possible. With great support from many sponsors, partners and participants, visitors of all age groups and various socio-economic backgrounds had a memorable experience. The robotics club from Bellarmine College Preparatory was a big hit!
[<photo 4> Robot & Toddler]DSC_4774

Upon arrival, astronaut Yvonne Cagle headed straight to the STEM education center to observe the various classes being given. With great enthusiasm, she jumped into an interactive session being run by GoldieBlox, a local company whose mission is to inspire the next generation of female engineers. A willing co-conspirator, Yvonne definitely inspired a number of youngsters during this visit to the Hornet.
[<photo 5> Yvonne & GoldieBlox]

In the early afternoon, Yvonne introduced Buzz with a few personal remarks about her childhood dreams of going into space. Buzz gave his keynote presentation to an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 people on the aircraft carrier’s huge hangar deck. Everyone listened intently, as he spoke about his experiences on the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 space flights – especially walking on the moon’s surface. He then articulated his vision for future human space exploration, with a primary focus of landing on Mars within the next 2 decades.
[<photo 6> Crowd & Buzz in HB]DSC_4915rtcp

Afterward, the audience was able to get their Mission to Mars books signed by Buzz (who autographed 719 copies in just two hours) and/or interact with the many members of the NASA and Navy Apollo 11 Recovery Team who were present. Julian Cruz was a lucky youngster who managed to collect an autograph from the Apollo 11 flight surgeon Dr. William Carpentier. The doctor actually spent more time in the NASA “moon germ” quarantine facilities than the astronauts!
[<photo 7> Bill & Julio]

After a long yet enjoyable daytime event, most visitors left the ship as it was being transitioned over to the evening cocktail reception and gourmet dinner. All hands – young and elderly – agreed that history is much richer than what is gained by just reading a book and, that learning can be fun. Proving the point are these two Sea Cadets from the Diablo Squadron, Aidan Mone and Jarod Whitman. Along with many fellow cadets and Boy Scouts, they provided great volunteer DSC_5344-2assistance, including passing out programs to arriving guests.
[<photo 8> Two Cadets & pgms]

I thoroughly enjoy chatting with people who have made history. Few of them protect their fame – most simply say they were “just doing their job.” Given my membership in the baby boomer generation, those individuals are often participants in major world events of the World II or Korean War eras.

However, it’s very clear to any historian alive today that a major shift in “demographics” is well underway. This was clearly demonstrated by our two featured astronaut speakers at Splashdown 45.DSC_4841

Buzz Aldrin is an alpha-male reflection of his generation. In that timeframe, positions of power and responsibility were largely held by Caucasian men, with a majority having had military service and some level of combat action. The primary metric for becoming a hero within the Greatest Generation was military-oriented achievement. But, as shown by the trials and tribulations of the Tuskegee Airmen or the 442nd Regimental Combat team, it was difficult for minorities to break into the ranks of those who were publicly recognized for high achievement.

Buzz was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. As a USAir Force fighter pilot, he shot down two MIGs in combat over Korea. He earned an advanced Sc.D degree from MIT by writing a thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous, which became extremely useful to NASA’s upcoming lunar landing program. When he joined NASA in 1963, he was in the right place with the right training and knowledge. He performed well during the Gemini 12 flight, which placed him in position to became world famous as the second human to ever walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Even at age 84, Buzz continues to be a major voice for expanded US manned space exploration.DSC_5156rttw

Yvonne Cagle is an African-American woman who was born at West Point because her father was an officer in the US Air Force. Yvonne earned her BA in biochemistry from SF State University, and an M.D. degree from the University of Washington. She received a certificate in Aerospace Medicine from the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in 1988.She was actively involved with aircraft assigned to provide medical support and rescue in a variety of aero-medical missions.

Selected by NASA in April 1996, Yvonne completed two years of training and evaluation, and is qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist. Her initial assignment was at the Astronaut Office Operations Planning branch, supporting the Space Shuttle Program and International Space Station, followed by a special assignment to NASA’s Ames Research Center. The shuttle program was terminated before she was assigned a spaceflight mission. Yvonne continues a significant role with NASA and is also a practicing family physician.

Both of them are a credit to their generation and a reflection of the times and needs during which they served America’s space program. They, both being highly educated, possess keen intellects and are interesting to talk to!

Would one have been the “better astronaut” than the other during their years of top physical and mental performance? Well, it depends on the mission! If we needed to launch a hazardous mission to lasso a killer asteroid that was bearing down on earth, Buzz would be the better choice. But, if we needed to launch a mission to Mars to study its potential habitability, Yvonne is clearly better suited. Americans are very lucky to have such a diverse group of heroes who answer the call of national service throughout many generations.

ALIVE East Bay magazine was an important Media Sponsor of Splashdown 45.
More event photos can be found on this website:

Paving the Road to Mars

In mid-April, the Bay Area was treated to a rare lunar eclipse of a full moon. Those who stayed up late to view the red-hued moon also saw a smaller reddish orb in the same area of the sky. That was Mars, which had ventured to its closest position with earth for the past six years. Since America placed humans on the lunar surface 45 years ago, many citizens believe our next deep space journey should look beyond the moon… and focus on Mars.183995910

Foremost among them is a person who is uniquely qualified to have his informed opinion heard. Buzz Aldrin, the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 11 and one of the first two humans to set foot on the moon, is a major believer in aiming our next space-faring effort for Mars.

Last year he published a book called Mission to Mars. In it, Buzz details a vision of the steps needed to plant an American flag on the red soil of the 4th rock from the sun. Even with a well-funded, highly-focused program, he believes it will be a decade before we can get there.

NASA, however, doesn’t usually get all the funding it needs nor all the focus it wants. They believe a human landing mission will more likely take around 20 years of effort, with an “earliest date” of 2032.

Reaching Mars safely is far more difficult than putting a human on the moon. The moon is only 240 thousand miles away from earth, around which it orbits, so that distance remains constant. It can be reached in roughly three days using modern spacecraft technology. Lunar-based astronauts could be retrieved or resupplied relatively quickly if an illness or injury were to occur. Lunar explorers are also not subject to serious health risks that come with long-term solar radiation exposure.

However, the average “closest distance” Mars stays from the earth is around 48 million miles! Since it revolves around the sun, this only happens every 26 months, such as we saw this past April. For the rest of its 687 day cycle around the sun, the Mars elliptical orbit takes it as far as 250 million miles from earth. At a minimum, it would take a human-rated spacecraft six months just to reach the planet and, once there, the return journey would be difficult if not impossible to make until the next close approach.

Hence, a Mars exploration program will involve a 2-year journey to a hostile land rather than just a 1-week hop to our nearest heavenly neighbor. The logistics for a Mars landing are orders of magnitude more complex than the Apollo effort. A habitat of some sort will have to be erected; water, food and fuel will need to be carried with them (or have periodic resupply missions from earth), the atmosphere requires spacesuits to be worn at all times, and the temperature extremes must be dealt with.

In terms of our present day science and technology, how we enable a successful Mars expedition by 2032 is not completely clear. The Apollo program required an army of scientists, engineers and technicians, using slide rules, chalk boards and calculators, to work almost a decade to achieve their success. The Mars landing program will require a similar army of science-savvy people, although armed with sophisticated computers, data mines, neural networks and autonomous robots.

A major reason America won the 1960’s space race was the vast number of college graduates with degrees in science and engineering. The Apollo program, and the people involved, created a significant technological advantage for the U.S., generating political and economic power that has lasted for almost a half century.

The current U.S. work force has a deficit of this type of knowledge and skill (even in Silicon Valley). Hence, there is major national effort underway to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in high school and college. These are not only the key skills needed to build a successful Mars landing program, but the necessary foundation for continued economic prosperity in the U.S.

Danville’s own shuttle astronaut, Leroy Chiao, expressed his views at a recent Senate hearing, calling a Mars mission important not only for developing technologies beneficial to humans on Earth but for boosting national prestige and inspiration. “Human space flight has become woven into the very fabric of our identity, as a nation of explorers, innovators and entrepreneurs,” he said. “It was exactly the endeavors of the Apollo and prior programs that inspired me and my generation. We must do the same and more for our children and grandchildren, and to help maintain our position as the world leader.”

The USS Hornet Museum in Alameda has offered various types of STEM youth programs for many years. As part of this initiative, on July 26th, the museum is holding its 45th commemoration of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Called Splashdown 45, it will feature astronaut Buzz Aldrin and other space-exploration personalities. In addition to reviewing the Apollo effort, it will also explore some of the technologies and sciences needed to create a successful Mars landing program.

The first humans to walk on Mars have already been born and are quite likely in junior high school right now. The Hornet Museum hopes that one of them may have been inspired by attending this commemoration event, and be the featured speaker of Splashdown 70 in 2039, following their successful journey to the Red Planet!


The Bay Bridge Enters the 21st Century

We all know the basic function of a bridge is to span a gap between two locations, enabling citizens to travel between them more easily. But certain bridges in key locations also span a gap in time – it connects past, current and future generations together. Once in a while, a signature bridge of great architectural design becomes an inspiration to its community. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is this type of structure.2013 - 8.26.13 - DSC_7648

In the early 1900’s, California road builders felt the bay water that separated the two metropolitan communities was too deep and wide, making a bridge an engineering impossibility. For decades, commuters piled onto a fleet of ferry boats, whether by foot, automobile or trolley, to leisurely cross between the East Bay and the city of San Francisco.

San Francisco and Oakland grew up as separate communities, even with the constant, but measured, flow of goods, services and people between them. During the year of 1928, ferries carried over 46 million passengers between the two shorelines. Finally, with the exploding popularity of the automobile, it was determined that a bridge was necessary and such a structure could financially support itself with tolls.

The challenges of building this bridge were monumental. California State Highway Engineer Charles C. Purcell was put in charge of organizing the design and construction of the Bay Bridge. Fortunately, Yerba Buena Island was located about halfway between the two shorelines. This allowed for two independent spans that would meet at the island, connecting via a tunnel.

Spanning the western section between the San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island required ingenuity on a grand scale. The water, 100 feet deep at some points, and the underlying soil conditions, required new techniques for placing bridge foundations. The solution was to build two consecutive suspension bridges using the same basic architectural design as the Golden Gate Bridge.

The eastern crossing from the Oakland shoreline to Yerba Buena Island was also an immense feat of engineering, although less difficult than the deep water crossing on the western side. This bridge span was designed as a double cantilevered section (adjoining Yerba Buena Island) connecting to a double-deck truss bridge leading to the Oakland shoreline. The cantilevered section was 10,176 feet long, the longest bridge of its kind at the time. It also employed theworld’s deepest bridge pier, sunk 242 feet below water level.2013 - 9.1.13 - DSC_0874

Construction took three years, and was completed six months ahead of schedule. The bridge had consumed over six percent of the total steel output of the nation in 1933. Total costs were $77 million, including the construction of the Transbay Transit Terminal. The bridge opened in November, 1936, about six months before the Golden Gate Bridge. While an efficient vehicle transport system, cantilevered and truss bridges were a common style for dozens of railroad bridges built in the US at that time. Architecturally, the eastern span seemed to echo the demographics of Oakland, a working class community, and was nowhere as inspirational as the Golden Gate Bridge or the western span of the Bay Bridge!

In its early years, the bridge carried three lanes of auto traffic in each direction on the upper deck. The lower deck was reserved for truck traffic and inter-urban railways. This included the Key System street cars that ran through many communities in the East Bay and carried commuters to San Francisco throughout the day.

But automobile traffic increased greatly over the post-WWII years. In 1958, the railway system was removed and the upper deck was re-aligned to carry five lanes of westbound truck and auto traffic. The lower deck carried five lanes of eastbound traffic.

The Bay Bridge became the work-horse for the inter-city automobile traffic, with 270,000 vehicles crossing it each day. It was a crucial support element in the economic growth of the Bay Area. There were a few minor bridge closures, mostly for accidents or maintenance, until the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989. There was an inherent design flaw in the eastern span, where the cantilevered section abutted the truss section. This caused a portion of the upper deck to fall onto the lower deck. Further study indicated the bridge had narrowly avoided a more catastrophic failure. The Bay Area would experience significant economic disruption if the Bay Bridge ever suffered such a cataclysmic failure.Bay Bridge - Loma Prieta (crop)

Caltrans determined it would be less expensive to build an entirely new eastern span than to seismically retrofit the existing one. The initial design proposed was an elevated viaduct or skyway, consisting of reinforced concrete columns and roadway segments. The seismic design criterion for the new bridge required it to survive an 8.5 magnitude earthquake. The replacement bridge was authorized in 1998 and construction of the skyway segment began in January, 2002.

However, an extensive amount of political infighting and financial squabbling followed for various aesthetic, financial, and political reasons. In the end, it was decided to build a “signature” section as part of the new eastern span. For various reasons, this design of this section is based on an asymmetric, single-tower, self-anchored suspension architecture, which is very rare yet quite elegant. Construction on the “signature” span, which is located above the shipping channel and connects the skyway portion of the bridge to Yerba Buena Island, began in September, 2007. The entire bridge was completed in mid-2013 at the phenomenal cost of $6.4 billion. The grand opening was held immediately after the Labor Day holiday with very little fanfare.

While it will carry about the same amount of traffic as before (five lanes in each direction), it’s much safer for many reasons. The seismic design goal of the bridge is to withstand the largest potential earthquake the Bay Area might have in 150 years! For drivers, there are now shoulders on the roadway where one can pull over if they run out of gas or have a mechanical vehicle issue. For pedestrians and bicyclists, there is now a walkway attached to the side of the bridge. For night driving, the lighting on the bridge and in the Yerba Buena Tunnel is much brighter.2012 - 4.26.12 -DSC_9243

Most of the span was designed to be causeway style – very open with all supports underneath the bridge on the skyway segments. This creates a very “open feel” for drivers crossing the bridge, especially in the east-bound direction where before, they were enclosed within the lower deck of the prior double-deck bridge. For west-bound drivers, the views to the north and west are open and expansive (unless the fog is in). One does not get a claustrophobic feel when stuck in heavy traffic!

My initial drive across the new eastern span was one of mixed emotions. I was locked in the back seat of a Highway Patrol escort car at the time, so that may have affected things. It’s hard to get the full visual effect of the new suspension architecture when looking thru bars.

However, I was inspired by the new “signature” span. It is a work of art and will have a lasting positive impact on every tourist’s initial impression of Oakland, when one drives easterly in to the east bay community. It also imparts a sense of awe for drivers and passengers driving westerly into San Francisco because of the awesome view from Berkeley to Alcatraz to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Whether the cost of construction will end up being worth it, this new Bay Bridge definitely has the cache to become one of the most highly regarded in the world.

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Diving In Palau

_JDS0054For a scuba diving enthusiast, the Micronesian Republic of Palau is near, if not at, the top of their lifelong “bucket list.” It is a 100-mile long archipelago, with six small groups of islands surrounded by a reef in the middle of the western Pacific Ocean. The majority of these are the world famous, and uninhabited, Rock Islands.

Palau is an exceptional destination for the adventurous soul. Foremost are the pristine reefs and over 100 dive locations teeming with a wildly diverse array of marine life. It also has an interesting cultural history, dating back to 1,000 BC when the first inhabitants arrived from Indonesia. My primary interest revolved around actions that occurred during World War II when Palau was used as a major base by the Japanese until the US captured it in a vicious fight in September 1944. In recent years, East Asian tourists come for a brief vacation to get a tan on the beach or have a tropical wedding. Bob F ALIVE Peleliu April 2013

My wife Jennifer and I decided 2013 was the year to check this one off our list. However, just locating Palau on a map is not a simple task, while getting there involves many hours of flying. Fortunately, her brother, David, and his wife, Judi, had been there before and coordinated the process. In the end, we made arrangements for a special two week liveaboard cruise on the M/V Tropic Dancer, a very comfortable catamaran dive boat with an excellent Captain and crew.

After our 18 divers boarded the boat in Koror, we steamed leisurely north to some rarely explored locations. On most days there were four one-hour dives. The the first one began around 7:15am and sometimes, the last one would be at sunset. The water temperature was roughly 83 degrees so we were able to wear relatively thin wetsuits, which allowed great freedom of movement for taking pictures or swimming with larger fish that came our way. While Palau is prized by scuba divers, I snorkeled the entire time and enjoyed hanging out on the shallow reef tops.Palau -25

Over the course of two weeks, as our boat wandered from north to south, we visited a wide variety of sites including steep walls, pristine tropic reefs, deep caves and complex tunnels.  One of the most famous dive sites in the world is called Blue Corner, a wall that juts out into deep water. It has a rich concentration of marine life including an abundance of grey reef sharks, barracudas, sea turtles, napolean wrasse, humphead parrotfish and manta rays. At times, it looked like an underwater movie set with all the camera flashes popping off! German Channel and Peleliu Express are two other world-famous dive sites that provide an amazing experience, even for the veteran diver. Of course, the southern-most island in the group is Peleliu, where a significant WWII battle was fought, so there were numerous aircraft and ship wrecks to investigate and photograph.

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It is impossible to describe the number, color and types of marine life we encountered. Each day was filled with many wondrous sights, from the large pelagic cruising near us all the time, to cute little clown fish, hovering over their home anemone. There was a fantastic display of soft and hard corals as well as reef dwelling creatures like moray eels, and giants clams with shockingly blue mantles. Two favorites of mine were the royal blue starfish and clown triggerfish found in the shallower water.Palau -8

When the current got too strong for free swimming, divers would place a small hook into the reef and hover in one place while the sea life came rushing by on the undersea tide. On one such occasion, a 20-minute long school of bream (many thousands) zoomed by, transiting through Palau on their way from the Philippine Sea to the Pacific Ocean. On another occasion, we visited a manta ray cleaning station, where small wrasses and butterfly fish entered the manta’s mouth to eat various parasites in there.

Palau -7We also did a land tour of the island of Peleliu one day and visited some of the key WWII battle sites. In addition to exploring the invasion beach and the airfield we spent time in a huge cave that once housed 1,000 Japanese military personnel. Many of the artifacts left over from the war (tanks, landing craft, aircraft, heavy guns, etc.) are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle but there is enough still available to make the visit interesting and educational. Our boat was moored in a small mangrove-lined lagoon not far from the home of a large saltwater crocodile. Needless to say, none of us swam to shore that day.

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The final day proved to be a very unique and rewarding event in its own way. Jellyfish Lake is a marine lake located within the world famous Rock Islands, a group of small, rocky, mostly uninhabited islands in Palau’s Southern Lagoon. Of the 70 marine lakes in the area, Jellyfish Lake is the most famous and the only one open to tourists. It is about 12,000 years old and is notable for the millions of golden jellyfish that migrate across the lake every day.Boat trip - Jellyfish 4



Although the jellyfish living in the lake have stinging cells (nematocytes), their potency has lessened over many generations and rarely causes harm to humans. I can personally attest, however, that it is possible to feel the stings on sensitive areas, albeit very mild. People with allergies to jellyfish should consider wearing protective clothing for their swim, such as a rash guard or dive skin.

Each day, roughly four million golden jellyfish pulse through the water in rhythmic motion.Their bodies rotate counter-clockwise as they swim to the surface, presumably to provide even exposure to the sun for the symbiotic algae in their bodies.

Palau -9To reach the lake from the main boat dock, we had to endure short hike over a ridge that separates the lake from the ocean lagoon. Upon arrival, we saw a massive number of jellyfish milling around, vying for their place in the sun on its journey from east to west across the sky. Jumping into the water to join them for a brief snorkel/swim require a test of faith, since virtually all humans who have ever played at the beach during summer vacation have been painfully stung by a jellyfish at least once.

Most of our group “took the plunge,” but only a few of us swam slowly into the throng of reddish/brown jellyfish. We had to swim very carefully to ensure we didn’t damage their delicate bodies, especially with our fins. Even then, on occasion, we felt a little claustrophobic when a particularly large group completely surrounded us as they pulsed along on their migration path. In order to not hurt them we could only tread water and wait for the throng to pass.Boat trip - Jellyfish 2

At one point, Jennifer and I each gently held a jellyfish in our hands, much as one would hold a small kitten. They really do feel like holding an undulatingbatch of jello!It was a truly amazing experience – one we highly recommend for anyone wishing to get closer to the miracles of nature.

Photos Courtesy David & Judi Willis

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A Personal Remembrance of Neil Armstrong

By my calculations, the moon rose in the earth’s heavens roughly 15,730 times from the time Neil Armstrong first set foot on its surface until he died on August 25th of this year.  During those 43 years, I’d often look up at night and spot the Sea of Tranquility. A momentary thought would form, reflecting that man had walked upon it and the universe seemed a whole lot “smaller” as a result. It made me feel comfortable somehow, and proud to be an American.

Like all baby boomers, my formative years revolved around two great opposing national agendas, which were flip sides of the same “Cold War” coin. One was the Vietnam War, which polarized the nation in dramatic and often violent ways. The other was the “space race to the moon,” a grand competition for world technological dominance over communism, which unified the nation.

From the NASA space program arose a new crop of national heroes called astronauts, leading the charge with ever more daring exploits. Of these larger-than-life space jockeys with the “right stuff,” Neil Armstrong clearly occupied the top spot. A former naval aviator and civilian test pilot, he was the first human to walk on a planetary body other than earth. Many members of my generation hailed him as an icon for the ages. In hindsight, much of this adulation was crafted by NASA to keep its programs funded. But Armstrong didn’t buy into the hero label one bit despite the constant media and public adulation.

Neil’s quiet dignity reflected his solid mid-western values. These were rooted in the Great Depression and World War II eras, when the survival of democracy was under tremendous pressure and Americans worked together to achieve success. He was humble but determined to find the answers he sought. He believed that education and hard work are the keys to personal happiness and professional success.  There was also a dash of pocket-protector geek in him plus a dab of calculated risk-taking when he thought the rewards outweighed the risks.

Neil was a diehard aviation enthusiast. His heroes were pioneers from the early days of American aviation such as the Wright Brothers and Jimmy Doolittle.  As a youngster, he was enthralled with flying, and took his first flight in a Ford Trimotor before he turned six. Armstrong earned his flight certificate at age 15, before he had an automobile driver’s license. He was active in the Boy Scouts, eventually earning the rank of Eagle Scout. Neil graduated from Purdue University in 1955 with a Bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering and later was awarded a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

Armstrong initially served his nation as a naval aviator during the Korean War, flying 78 missions from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Essex. After the war, his career blossomed as a civilian test pilot for NACA (the predecessor to NASA) in the 1950’s, including seven flights in the supersonic X-15.

Finally, in 1962, he was selected in the second group of NASA astronauts and the first civilian. In 1966, Neil flew his first space mission in Gemini 8 as the Command Pilot.  He demonstrated his coolness under pressure by making a safe emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean when the space craft suffered a major in-flight malfunction.

Of course, in 1969, he was the Commander of the epic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission and became the first human to walk on the moon’s surface. His extraordinary composure under difficult circumstances saved the mission. As the lunar module was descending into a boulder-strewn area, Neil manually took control of the ungainly craft and made a safe landing with only seconds of fuel to spare. Hundreds of millions of people around the world breathlessly watched TV on July 20, 1969 as the Eagle landed on the moon and Neil calmly set foot on its surface. We didn’t exhale until four days later when the spacecraft Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and was recovered by the USS Hornet. He was overwhelmed by the outpouring of public demand for his presence.  Instead of embracing the trappings of wealth, he chose to become a college teacher.

My connection to Neil Armstrong begins with the USS Hornet Museum in 2008, while writing the book called Hornet Plus Three. I needed information that could only be provided by one of the astronauts inside the spacecraft as it descended into the earth’s atmosphere. I mailed a letter to Neil’s “generic” post office box in Lebanon, Ohio, seeking clarification on a specific issue about the Apollo 11 flight.

I waited many days for a reply, sometimes taking the mail directly from the hands of the postman. On May 6 (my 60th birthday), I turned my computer on in the morning and did a casual glance through the emails. Lo and behold – there was one from Neil Armstrong! I was as excited as a small child on Christmas morning and could hardly wait to open it:

“Hello Bob –

The recovery, from my point of view, went extremely well.  The command module had come to rest in the “stable 2” (inverted) position, so we had the experience of going through the procedure to bring it to an upright position.  Clancy and his gang did an excellent job of securing the CM, getting us safely out of the spacecraft, completing all the procedures for safeguarding earth from lunar pathogens, and getting us into the basket to be lifted up to the recovery helicopter. The helicopter gave us an excellent ride and smooth landing on the Hornet.  And the welcome by the Hornet and its crew, and the welcome by President Nixon, was memorable. We were convinced it had been a perfect recovery.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t remember that the return to Pearl was 2 and 1/2 days.  Dr. Carpentier took good care of us, the food and drink was excellent (compared to our rations during the flight) and we had a great deal of work to do (getting our thoughts recorded as preparation for all the post-flight debriefings for which we were obligated).

The quarantine (in Houston) was a necessary nuisance but valuable for providing an atmosphere conducive to completing all our post-flight paperwork and interaction with later Apollo flight crews, systems specialists, flight controllers, etc. The quarantine process, while a nuisance, provided us the opportunity to do the work that needed to be done.  In view of the intense public interest in the flight, that would have been very difficult without the quarantine requirement. And the quarantine was a constant reminder that Apollo 11 had been a success in reaching the national goal of landing men on the surface of the moon and returning them safely to earth.

All the best, Neil”

From that day on, Neil generously gave his time in helping me understand the flight and recovery issues of Apollo 11. He shared a significant amount of personal information, only asking that I respect his privacy and not give out his personal contact information. He even volunteered to write the foreword for the book, but pressing issues about new Orion spacecraft caused him to just write a cover blurb.

The highlight of my museum career came a year later, shortly before we launched the new book (with fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldin aboard the Hornet Museum) when I unexpectedly found this email in my inbox:

“Hi Bob – I returned to my office from some travel and found HORNET PLUS THREE awaiting. I must say, it is an exceptional job. And it fills a gaping hole in the Apollo history. Dick did a fine job on the foreword. Thanks for your tenacity and perseverance. Well done !! Neil”

Occasionally, our conversations would stray into other areas. This past May, the Hornet Museum was planning a major event to pay tribute to General Jimmy Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders. I emailed Neil to see if he would like to make a contribution to our event guide. He immediately responded:

“Thanks, Bob – I had the great pleasure of knowing and working with General Doolittle. In addition to his many military achievements in war and peace, he was, in intellect, character, thoughtfulness and wisdom, also four star. He was, by any measure, a great American.  My best, Neil”

After numerous emails and telephone conversations over the years, I finally met him in person at the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony on Capitol Hill in November 2011. He was a humble and caring individual with a very sharp mind, a true “grass roots American” who sloughed off all the fame and celebrity that everyone wanted to heap on him. Even though he was surrounded by the rich and powerful in Washington, his face lit up when he saw the USS Hornet recovery team and stole away to have a private moment with us.

I am proud to say that Neil Armstrong remains one of my heroes. He will be held in high esteem throughout human history, not because he was a celebrity but because he was a great human being who dared to explore new horizons in the service of mankind.

Godspeed, Neil.

Fleet Week 2012

Early in October, during the waning days of summer, the windows of San Francisco’s skyscrapers will again rattle as the Navy’s Blue Angels roar into town for Fleet Week 2012, scheduled to run October 4 through October 8.

For thirty years, Fleet Week has celebrated the young men and women who gallantly serve in our Armed Forces. It has traditionally been the largest maritime and aviation event in northern California (although the America’s Cup race in 2013 may rival it).

It has been estimated that a million people are attracted to the Bay Area during this four day celebration. Regardless of the actual number, this event generates a lot of patriotic pride and rings the cash registers for a large number of businesses throughout our communities. There are numerous festivities associated with Fleet Week but the most popular is the air show over the bay and the parade of ships along the City waterfront.

This year’s event kicks off on Thursday afternoon when the six powerful F/A-18 Hornet jets of the Blue Angels conduct a one hour reconnaissance and practice flight over the bay. On Friday, other planes involved in the weekend air show also rehearse, along with the Blue Angels. The air show itself, featuring heart-stopping, high-speed encounters between planes, takes place over the bay for safety reasons.

Saturday typically has the busiest schedule. To comfortably follow the day’s action, visitors should arrive early to stake out a great viewing spot, wear a warm fleece and bring a good pair of binoculars. In the late morning, thousands of spectators normally line the northern City waterfront around the Marina Green to watch the parade of ships. The exact number and names of the ships has not been revealed yet, but they will be led by vessels from the U.S. Navy’s Third fleet, based in San Diego. Later that day, the ships open for public tours at their berths, usually from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

That afternoon, at 12:30 p.m., the initial air show will be presented, with interesting aircraft flown by the Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force and many others. Last year, the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey put on a particularly awe-inspiring demonstration of its vertical hover capability. But the ambient noise and crowd excitement level escalates severely at 3 p.m. when the Blue Angel jets make their appearance after taking off from San Francisco International Airport. For an hour, using various formations, the aircraft scream across the bay, making several high speed passes directly in front of the spectator stands (and over a myriad of private and commercial boats cruising the bay). Like a NASCAR fan, if you like the adrenalin rush that comes from the noise and speed of high performance vehicles, and dare-devil maneuvers, this is a dream come true.

On Sunday, the aircraft perform their final flight appearance, a repeat of the Saturday schedule. The naval ships remain open for free tours along the waterfront. Air shows and practice flights may be changed or canceled if the weather turns bad, such as one of last year’s Blue Angel demonstrations that was overcome by our fabled fog, creeping in through the Golden Gate in a not-so-subtle manner (did I mentioned you should bring a fleece jacket)?

The Sunday air show also competes for attention with the 144th annual Italian Heritage Day parade (aka Columbus Day Parade). This is the City’s oldest civic event and the nation’s oldest Italian-American community celebration, as the floats and bands wind their way from Fisherman’s Wharf to North Beach.

Of note, this year the Commander of the Third Fleet has requested that Fleet Week also reach out to East Bay Area communities. Other exhibits and events will include:

October 5-7 from 9 AM – 5 PM: The Marine Corps (13th Marine Expeditionary Unit) will display equipment and weapons exhibits at Alameda Point adjacent to the USS Hornet Museum located at Pier 3, Alameda, CA.
October 5 – noon: A “Salute to East Bay Veterans” Navy Band Concert near the Oakland City Hall.

All things considered, the first weekend in October promises to provide serious excitement and entertainment for the citizens of the SF Bay Area courtesy of the US Navy and US Marine Corps.

Editor’s Note: Bob Fish, a Trustee of the USS Hornet Museum and frequent contributor to ALIVE Magazine, attended the University of Virginia on a Naval ROTC scholarship and served his active military duty in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. So, he is “somewhat” passionate about the Fleet Week events!

A Whale Tale

Karma – A small word with a huge impact on our lives.

All my adult life, I have felt an attachment to those majestic creatures of the sea called whales. To me, they seem more “civilized” than a few people I’ve met! Not the least of which is the patience they’ve shown towards humans over the course of written history. During the whale days of yore, it’s amazing that more of them didn’t rush headlong and crash into the chase boats to disrupt the sailors who were sharpening their harpoons and preparing to slaughter numerous fellow whales.

My English ancestors, three brothers from Northumberland, landed in Massachusetts in 1630, just ten years after the initial group of Pilgrims scrambled onto Plymouth Rock. Over the next few decades, my branch of the family tree migrated to Connecticut and settled in towns along the north shore of Long Island Sound. One of these villages, called Fishtown, was located on the west side of the famous Mystic River. It was renamed Noank in 1840 for reasons I don’t know, although their cemetery is still called Fishtown Cemetery and it contains many of my ancestors. Just across the river was another village of seafarers called Mystic Seaport, which now houses one of the best maritime museums in the United States. For many centuries, people along the seacoast of New England made their living from the ocean – whether fishing, commerce trading or whaling. Many of my forefathers were whalers, which is where the karmic part comes in.

Whaling was an exceptionally dangerous business – both physically and economically. For those who chose this profession, injury and death were commonplace on the multi-month ocean voyages. Due to raging storms often encountered in whaling areas, many vessels and crews were lost at sea. Few individuals got rich and most of those were owners and agents, not the brave men who battled the elements in small boats.

So, why did they do it? Before the advent of gas and electric energy sources, oil from whale blubber was highly prized for house and street lighting as well as making high quality soap. Baleen was commonly used for fishing poles, buggy whips and women’s corset stays. Whales died by the hundreds each year to provide everyday conveniences for American life in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Much of my family’s history during this period involved interactions with whales.

Hence, for that reason, I have always wanted to meet a whale, eyeball-to-eyeball. My fascination (obsession?) has led me to many places in the world, from New Zealand to the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii to Mexico, and Maine to Alaska. Each time, my wife and I saw some interesting sights, but none really met the “bucket list” experience I was seeking.

Two years ago, a friend of my brother-in-law informed us about a scuba diving boat in the Caribbean that gave her an opportunity to swim with whales. Three small boat operators have permits that allow guests to get into the water and snorkel with humpback whales in the Silver Bank area of the Dominican Republic for three months every year. This is a small, shallow area with a unique formation of coral heads that provides protection from the pounding winter seas for mother whales and their calves. It is now a sanctuary where all North Atlantic humpback whales are protected from hunting. Less than 500 people can be accommodated each year since the dive boats only carry 16 to 20 guests per week-long trip. Though the waiting list was more than a year long, we signed up immediately with that same dive boat operator, Aggressor Fleet.

In mid-March of this year, we flew to the Dominican Republic and boarded our boat, the M/V Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, at Puerto Plata. We sailed in the evening and woke up the next morning as the boat was being moored to a buoy in the Silver Bank. We immediately saw several whales spouting at various distances around us. After breakfast, we boarded two small Zodiak chase boats and, armed with digital cameras instead of harpoons, we zoomed off to find some friendly whales.

Within an hour we found a mother and her calf resting on the bottom in 20 feet of water. Several of us, following a prescribed procedure, carefully entered the water and slowly approached their resting area. Within two minutes, the 15-foot calf nuzzled it’s mother as if to say “ma, can I go play with those silly-looking creatures” and swam up to greet us. For ten minutes, it did loops, swirls and head stands in front of us, hamming for the cameras. After completing each gymnastic move, it returned to mom as if to gain approval. Finally, the 40-foot long mother glided slowly up to our group and looked at each one of us from only an arm’s length away. Even though she was as big as a large truck, with powerful fins and a tail that could smash us into eternity in a second, she was as gentle and calm as any “wild creature” could ever be. After satisfying herself that we were no threat to her calf, she surfaced, breathed in new air, and returned to her resting position on the seafloor. The calf, of course, was now really excited to have his playmates “approved” by mom and its antics continued unabated for more than half an hour.

And there it was – just one hour in the water, and my lifelong bucket list desire had been fulfilled!

So it went for five more days. There were lots of whales spouting, spy-hopping, breaching, singing, and otherwise showing off for the other whales (as well as us humans) in their winter-time rest and recreation area. We even saw a few street brawls, as a few rowdy males vied to win the right to mate with a fertile female, slapping each other with pectoral fins or smashing one another with a tail smack to the head.

To those people who would say “well, I can see all this in an Imax theater,” let me say it’s not the same experience at all. For instance, we encountered a singing whale and swam with him for over an hour. When you are in the water with a loud sound source, it does not enter your “hearing” consciousness via the ears but via the entire body. In this case, the sound waves activated every cavity in our body so it feels like being inside a giant speaker – we became “one” with the whale’s song.

Even more so, I’m pretty sure that mother whale not only looked into my eyes but into my soul. When a 40-foot long, 45-ton creature swims towards you in the water, there’s a natural instinct to flee – fast! But I felt a great sense of calmness and peace that allowed me to stay where I was and let the whale swim right up to me and stop. I knew she meant no harm. It’s one of those experiences that defies explanation, but you know it when it happens! I wanted to apologize for the harm my ancestors had done to hers, but it’s very difficult to speak with a snorkel in one’s mouth. At the end of the encounter, however, I think she got the message anyway.