NATO invites visitors aboard

Ships: A multinational squadron stops in Baltimore to give tours and emphasize the importance of the alliance.

October 03, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It's not every day NATO warships come to call on Baltimore to pay respects to the city and open gangways to the public for a floating open house - with European sailors acting as hosts.

The ships made Maurice Henson Jr., a 12-year-old from Baltimore, decide that one day he would like to go to sea.

Their gray architecture made a Vietnam War veteran, Jim Grubka of East Aurora, N.Y., turn wistful during his first-ever walk on a warship. "It makes war seem impersonal," he said, compared to his experience as an infantryman in the jungle.

Two 400-foot-long German and Dutch frigates stood side by side at the Inner Harbor promenade yesterday, looming several stories over thousands passing by. Many accepted the invitation to come aboard for a look.

But the tour that the alliance force is making, with other stops in New York, Boston and Canada, is not just a pleasure cruise.

In a time of strained international relations and the war in Iraq, Leon Bruin, the Dutch rear admiral who commands the visiting ships, called the Standing Naval Force Atlantic, spoke of the mission.

"We need to reaffirm the importance of the trans-Atlantic link on the seas in the war against terrorism. In an ever-changing world with different kinds of threat, we have to do it together," he said. "There's no way America can be everywhere."

Bruin, 53, is commodore of the multinational squadron that sent the ships to Baltimore for a five-day visit. They were a Dutch vessel - the flagship - two German ships, a Royal Canadian Navy ship, a Spanish ship and an American guided missile frigate, the USS Simpson. The standing force is ready to respond in five days to a trouble spot or emergency anywhere in the world, Bruin said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bruin said, NATO's outlook changed, making joint naval exercises more critical. "Re-engagement" was how he and other officers described the new worldview they are trying to bring home to NATO seaports.

The officers were briefed on particulars of the cities they visit - in Baltimore's case, the demographics, the crime rate and the Red Sox games scheduled at Camden Yards.

Mayor Martin O'Malley welcomed the sailors in a ceremony and reception Friday, telling them of the historical importance of Fort McHenry in defending Baltimore during the 1814 British naval bombardment, which led Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The mayor urged the admiral to take a police ride-along when Bruin told him he was shocked at the violence and drug dealing he saw on a ride-along during a visit in 1996.

"Go back to the same corners, and those corners will be clear," O'Malley told him.

Also at the reception, the mayor's wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, 41, recalled the last time she was on a NATO ship in the harbor - on her 20th birthday, she said, when she had a summer waitress job on the waterfront and some Dutch sailors invited her and some friends to have birthday cake aboard the ship.

Because each of the five navies involved in the tour does things its own way, the sailors work, train and exchange ideas to understand how their military cultures differ. For example, socializing between officers and crew is frowned on in the U.S. Navy, while the Dutch take a more relaxed stance on such friendships.

"Eyeball-to-eyeball contact is important for a band of warriors," Bruin said. "In the end, you have to know each other for trust to develop."

The USS Simpson was not open to the public yesterday for security reasons, Bruin noted. "They're not allowed to have open house in America," he said.

The Canadian ship is docked in Fells Point during the annual community festival, but none of the NATO ships will be open today as the sailors take field trips to Gettysburg, the U.S. Naval Academy or Washington.

NATO officers said it took only half an hour to maneuver the two ships into position. "It's like parking your big car," Bruin said.

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