By Jason Moore
IT'S not often that you get an invitation to lunch at sea. Even more unusual is when they agree to provide transport in the form of a helicopter and completely out of the ordinary is when they say that you will be landing at sea. It's not extraordinary though, when you are dealing with the might of the United States Navy which invited the Bulletin aboard the assault ship Kearsarge as it sailed into Palma yesterday.

The three thousand crew of the vessel, which includes U.S. Marines, are looking forward to some rest and relaxation in Palma after sailing from their home base in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Kearsarge is the biggest U.S. Navy vessel to visit the port of Palma for many years.
Waiting for me when I arrived at the Son Sant Joan military air base was a Naval version of the Black Hawk helicopter made famous by Ridley Scott's film Black Hawk Down. Certainly, an impressive-looking machine more than capable of carrying the small group bound for the Kearsarge which at that moment was cruising in Balearic waters bound for Palma. The group consisted of myself, another journalist, high-ranking officers from the Spanish military and representatives of the U.S. Navy League who were co-ordinating the Kearsarge's visit.

Strict U.S. safety regulations mean that you have to wear a helmet, goggles, a life jacket and a survival kit, before you can get into the aircraft. So, looking like something out of Biggles I was strapped in with my fellow guests and the giant helicopter lifted off the ground and hovered, awaiting the green light from air traffic control to proceed. The four crew included a navy diver which was pretty reassuring. At just before midday we were off...bound for the Kearsarge. It is an amazing sight seeing a vessel of this size, steaming at 20 knots, from the air. The pilot, obviously proud of his ship, flew over the vessel before touching down on its flight deck, which was laden with helicopters and Harrier jump-jets.

Previous experiences, when going aboard naval vessels with high-ranking officers, has taught me to always stay clear because otherwise you risk being welcomed aboard with all the honours which a senior officer requires. There were some very high-ranking officers in our party who were given the proper naval welcome while the rest of us stood back and admired the show.

The Kearsarge, is an unusual ship because it has two commanding officers; a colonel is in charge of the Marines and a Naval captain reigns supreme over the ship. All the more confusing still is when there is another naval Captain with the rank of Commodore who is in charge of a Task Group who is also embarked aboard the vessel; a ship with three captains...

But, one good thing about the U.S. Navy is they make you feel at home. Their officers are exceptionally polite and although wary of the media (they are very wise!) they get their message across in a precise way. When you've got 3'000 men and women aboard, catering can be a problem and lunch is served at 12.30p.m., rather early for the Spanish but rather late for the Americans who are still getting accustomed to the time difference.

We had a silver service lunch in the enormous wardroom surrounded by Marines and Sailors. There is naturally rivalry between the two who are both keen to emphasise that one couldn't function without the other; for the 1'200 U.S. Marines aboard, the Kearsarge moves them to where they are needed; for the U.S. Navy, transporting Marines is only one of a number of functions which they carry out.

Lunch is traditional U.S. style consisting of plenty of salads, steak, corn on the cob and soft drinks. I don't know what our food critic Andrew Valente would have made of the meal but it was certainly different and very well cooked.

It's quite amazing how a ship with 3'000 souls aboard can seem relatively empty. As we toured the endless corridors and the ship's gym you got the impression that most of the crew were away.

Only later did I realise that hundreds of them were lining the deck as the ship entered port.
The Kearsarge is fully equipped to support a Marine Battalion. Its stern is floodable to allow Marines to head to shore in landing craft or hovercraft type vessels. There is literally kit everywhere from small amphibious tanks, to jeeps, lorries, helicopters, weapons and Harrier jump-jets.

The Kearsarge's mission is to patrol the Mediterranean and further afield as part of the Global War on terrorism. It is a job which the crew take extremely seriously and they know that they could be involved in operations against Al Qaeda or even stopping gun-running.

But while the Kearsarge, is an enormous and powerful vessel the attack on the frigate Cole in Yemen means that even a small dinghy can be a threat. The Cole was attacked as it entered port by a suicide bomber who had a boat packed with explosives. The Straits of Gibraltar has become a dangerous area for large warships as it is used by literally thousands of small vessels. Two years ago an Al Qaeda plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Straits was revealed and both navies are always extra careful when transitting through this area. As they say...you can never be too careful. “We were certainly on our guard going through the Straits,” one officer remarked.

The Kearsarge was involved in the second Iraqi war but only in a secondary role; ferrying equipment to units ashore. No-one was saying where this deployment would take them to but like all Navy vessels they just go where they are told.

This is a long deployment for the crew of the Kearsarge and the unstable times which we are living in at the moment make it even more worrying for friends and family back home in Norfolk, Virginia where the ship is based.

The sight of Palma yesterday was the first time they had seen land for almost two weeks, and U.S. ships are also dry, making the sight of Palma bars even more refreshing for the crew.

During their stay in Palma a wide range of activities has been organised for them from golf and other sporting activities to helping out the Projecto Hombre drug rehabilitation centre. A group of Sailors and Marines have volunteered to plant trees at their Palma centre and help out with other welfare projects. Over recent years the number of U.S. vessels visiting the port of Palma has declined quite substantially.

Operational commitments mean that the U.S. Navy is now heavily employed in the Persian Gulf but also other ports on the mainland have launched a charm offensive and Palma has lost out.

Tarragona has proved to be exceptionally popular.
But the crew of the Kearsarge yesterday underlined the fact that Palma was still one of their favourite liberty ports in the Mediterranean.
Three thousand sailors and Marines will also be a welcome sight for hard pressed local bar and shop owners. It is estimated that they will spend in excess of $1 million dollars during their stay here. But that is beside the point...I don't think I have ever seen so many people so pleased to see land and an opportunity to relax.

It goes without saying that their visit will be a success. The Kearsarge is expected to be the first of many U.S. ships which will be visiting Palma this year, many will be pleased to see them not least, the bar, restaurant and shop owners.

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