From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Events: Richard "Corky" Erie and Beth Baker on Fleet Week 2019 in NYC
In May 10th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 121, host Theo Mayer interviewed Richard "Corky" Erie and Beth Baker about Fleet Week New York. Richard is the director of Fleet Week New York and Beth is the Director of Public Affairs for the Navy in the Mid-Atlantic and Fleet Week New York. The two of them have plenty to say about the logistics, scale, operation, and impact of Fleet Week on the city- as well as how this year's event incorporates WWI. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: We've been featuring stories about the Navy and its role in WWI for weeks now, and clearly we've seen how the WWI story is intimately connected to both the Navy and to New York. So, Navy and New York. Well that adds up to Fleet Week. Since 1984, US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard ships have landed in New York for Fleet Week, with events and celebrations in May that run through Memorial Day. It's become a traditional New York celebration of our Maritime Services and their special relationship with the city. To tell us more about Fleet Week New York, its history and what's happening in May of 2019, including WWI-themed activities, joining us are the Navy's Richard Erie, Director of Fleet Week New York, who's also better known by his fighter pilot handle as Corky, and Beth Baker, the Director of Public Affairs for the Navy region Mid-Atlantic and Fleet Week New York. Both of you, welcome to the podcast.
Beth Baker: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Theo Mayer: So Corky, let me start with you. Fleet Week is something the Navy has been doing now for decades, not only in New York but other cities like San Diego. What's the history of Fleet Week in the Navy and what's the idea behind the effort?
Richard Erie: Well Theo, that's correct. The Navy has been doing events like Fleet Week around the country for decades. And right now the principal Fleet Weeks are up in Portland, Oregon with the Rose Festival, Seattle Seafair, Los Angeles has a Fleet Week, San Diego, and then on the east coast of course we've got Port Everglades, Florida. Every other year I believe we're doing New Orleans, and of course there's the Superbowl of Fleet Weeks up in New York. And it's an important effort because the Navy is, as they say, America's away team. So when we're doing our job, we're not really being seen by the public too much because we're all overseas doing that hard work. So, it's important for the Navy and the Sea Services to get into the cities to highlight the capabilities of the ships and hardware and everything, but more importantly to showcase the Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Whenever we do a big event like a Fleet Week New York, that is always the biggest and most important thing we do. And in fact that's the biggest crowd responses from just that average Sailor, Marine or Coast Guardsman walking around interacting with the public. So that's an important part of the Navy's outreach mission.
Theo Mayer: So Beth, you've been the public affairs officer for Fleet Week New York for a long time. When was your first fleet week
Beth Baker: Oh goodness, I'd say I've kind of lost track of it, but probably about 15 years ago was when I first began working Fleet Week New York for the Mid-Atlantic region. And it's one of the highlights of what I get to do every year. And to bring the Sailors and Marines and Coast Guard personnel, to have them experience Fleet Week is just really a thrill.
Theo Mayer: Well, Fleet Week New York is now basically an annual tradition. I'm sure it's been evolving. How did it evolve over all these years?
Beth Baker: Well, it has, and the ships have gone primarily into Manhattan for a number of years. And we've really expanded the outreach of the Navy into the communities and the boroughs in New York even further. We expanded into Staten Island which is just an amazing port to visit at the Sullivan's pier, and we extended our outreach into Brooklyn the last several years. It's difficult for us to get into all the boroughs, but we've also reached out into the US Merchant Marine Academy and the SUNY Maritime. So we're trying to cover all of the boroughs as much as we can, but not only the Navy ships that have come in, the extended outreach entered the boroughs beyond ships. Because we recognize not everyone can get to the Piers to see their Navy Marine Corps and Coast Guard team. So we take that team, the Sea Service, out into the community where we do aviation events at parks throughout the week and the weekend. We have community relations activities and engagement in Rockefeller Plaza in Times Square. We're really all over the boroughs. So you'll see sailors and marines doing a whole lot of different things, and we've extended and expanded our community outreach with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels. Whenever we go into a port, whether it's here or at home or abroad, it's always important to give back into the communities that we're visiting. So we do engagements and give back to our communities, like painting a home or community center for Habitat for Humanity, or delivering Meals on Wheels, or visiting veteran centers or VA's or hospitals. It's really something that the service members enjoy doing. So, I'd say that's really expanded and grown over the course of the many years.
Theo Mayer: Beth, you have also started to reach down into schools, aren't you?
Beth Baker: We do. From kindergarten through high school is really a great outreach effort. We do a big event at Staten Island where all the schools in Staten Island could come out and watch an aviation exhibit and listen to the Navy band, see a coastguard demonstration by the Silent Drill Team. So those school children hopefully see those activities going on and maybe it inspires them to join one of the Sea Services at some point in their lives. And also we teach STEM activities. We've got robotics and activities where we can get into classrooms and do some things in schools to showcase that science and math and technology for students, and that there are great careers in the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. If you're not necessarily a sailor per se, it's more than just being on the high seas or defending freedom, there's a whole lot of activities that reach all kind of different spectrums across the board.
Theo Mayer: Now, Corky you're an ex-fighter pilot, aren't you?
Richard Erie: That's a true statement. Yes. That was my misspent youth.
Theo Mayer: Well, in the process of putting this together, you're also dealing with a lot of hardcore logistics. It's a pretty complicated endeavor. Can you give our listeners some idea of what is involved in all the agencies that you have to deal with in New York?
Richard Erie: Absolutely. Upwards of 12 ships pulling into the five boroughs of New York can get massively complex, just from the ship support side of it. Obviously there's what's called the husbanding services, where the ships need to have all the services pier side provided, and the fendering and the bowers and ramps to get people aboard. But also you're dealing with on the shore side. Pretty much every agency in New York, whether it's the Office of the Mayor, or Office of Emergency Management, NYPD, FDNY, several of the corporations that run the waterfronts, and you're also trying to pull together all the support logistics. We have a staff of about 520 or so, active duty and civilian folks are what I would term staff, working up in New York to execute the event. Each of those sites of the five sites that I've talked about has a command center, if you will, that's connected by computers and communication to a main command center in Manhattan. So just putting those together is logistically a monster. And then of course you've got all the hotel support and vehicle support and everything like that. So, it's really kind of a year long planning effort. You're kind of looking at those long range logistics for quite a while, trying to make it all come together because up until about three weeks out, all of the things we're talking about are kind of theoretical. Then everything starts to turn real. Everything starts to show up and alive, deliveries are made, and then it transitions very quickly into a build phase, trying to put it all together just before the ships arrive. And it's a lot of people doing a lot of work for a lot of months just to get the plan in place, and then everyone's got to go up to New York and start building the frame of the house before the ship show up. And you have to kind of keep your brain on a swivel as we say, because you're always faced with all kinds of challenges, differences, and pop-up challenges and problems. But for the most part, what makes the job easy frankly, is the city of New York and all the agencies and the citizens are so very cooperative. I mean, they go above and beyond the call for us in any number of ways you care to mention. From NYPD basically flooding our Piers with police officers to help us provide security, to FDNY doing all the EMS coverage on the Piers and things like that, to a man and woman, they want to support as much as they possibly can and it will go well above and beyond the call of duty for their Navy and their Marine Corps and their Coast Guard.
Theo Mayer: Well, New York does love Fleet Week, it really does.
Richard Erie: They really do.
Theo Mayer: And Beth, this year there's a World War I component that's part of the theme, how's that manifesting?
Beth Baker: We're really excited about that. So, we were able to theme the Fleet Week this year with the commemoration of World War I. And New York has a rich history with World War I that we're going to tell to the general public and the masses throughout a whole lot of different activities. We've got World War I re-enactors that are going to actually be on the piers, on the ships talking to the public, and that's tens of thousands of people- hopefully, we have good weather. We're going to be in Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza, we're going to be in the media, we're going to be all over the place. We have a maquette of the National World War I Monument, which is a mock up of that monument, that will be on display at various locations throughout the city for everyone to kind of see and learn a little bit more about their history and the ties to New York specifically. So, it's a great opportunity to tell the story and the rich connection that the city of New York has with World War I.
Theo Mayer: I have two short last questions for both and for each of you. The first question is, in the years that you've been doing this for the Navy, what do you personally remember most about Fleet Week? You know, what are you going to tell the grandkids about? Beth you're first.
Beth Baker: So for me, I would have to say the wonderful hospitality that the city of New York extends to our sailors, marines and coastguard personnel, and really all of our armed services. I've grown up in a Navy town here in Norfolk my entire life. So I see the sailors every day, but the people of New York, the visitors, and the people who live there don't see that. And they stopped sailors and marines on the street and pose for pictures, and to get selfies, and just chat them up and they tell them thank you, which is not something they get here at home. It's just sort of a given. But the hospitality and the red carpet that the city of New York rolls out is something that you have to see to believe, and it really is amazing.
Theo Mayer: Corky?
Richard Erie: I would echo Beth's comment obviously about the reception from the city of New York and the citizens. One of the things though for me doing several large events a year, what I tend to notice most and remember the most are what I call little vignettes that I see occur during an event of that scale. They're not really big and not a whole lot of people notice them. Two of them in particular from Fleet Week are my favorites. On my first or second Fleet Week I think it was, I was walking around Times Square just kind of watching the show, seeing how things are coming together and two young sailors were walking down the sidewalk, and they couldn't walk more than 10 feet without someone wanting to take their picture with them. And so I was kind of standing close to them as they were doing like their 10th or 15th selfie with a bunch of citizens or members of the public, and the one guy says to the other guy, "Man, we're rock stars." I said, "You guys are rock stars." And it was really neat to see something they don't get a chance to experience very often. You know? So that's one angle that I really appreciate, is the impact it makes on the sailors as well to be treated so nicely in New York. And then of course the other is, there was a time when we had an elderly gentlemen, Marine Corps veteran in a wheelchair. He had his marine jacket on, and his ball cap from Vietnam and he was pretty old. He came up to one of the ships, one of the amphibious ships that has a bunch of marines on it and was told, "Unfortunately sir, you can't have a wheelchair on a ship. [inaudible] do those." And there were a bunch of marines who said, "I will take care of this." They picked the gentleman up, carried him to board the ship and they gave him his own personal guided tour. So, that's kind of neat to see that young kid link up with an old veteran like that and just kind of take care of a fellow marine that, you know, may have left the service a long time ago, but he's still one of them.
Theo Mayer: Well, great stories from both of you. Okay. One more wrap-up question. It's a tough one, but it's a really short answer. Can you describe Fleet Week New York in one phrase? Corky, you're first.
Richard Erie: Fleet Week New York is 12 to 14 Navy and coastguard ships carrying upwards of 2,600 sailors, marines and coast guardsmen to all five boroughs of New York City, executing over 130 events in six days.
Theo Mayer: And Beth, how about you?
Beth Baker: So for me I'd say, Fleet Week New York is the opportunity for us to tell the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard story to the people of New York to highlight what their Navy, Marine Corps and their Coastguard do for them day in and day out to protect our sea lanes, protect commerce, and to just be the away team on a regular basis, and just the importance of those Sea Services to the American people.
Theo Mayer: Wonderful speaking with you both, thank you for joining us and telling our listeners more about Fleet Week and Fleet Week New York in 2019.
Richard Erie: Thank you.
Beth Baker: Thank you so much.
Theo Mayer: Richard "Corky" Erie is the director, and Beth Baker is the director of public affairs for Fleet Week New York.