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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 11, 2001

Navy gives boost to 'Pearl Harbor' film

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Department of Defense is helping Disney movie officials promote their premiere of "Pearl Harbor" with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, fighter jets and a platoon of public affairs officers flown in especially to promote Navy stories.

While the military is accommodating Disney, officials insist the extravaganza set for May 21 at Pearl Harbor is not costing taxpayers a dime. They say the movie, which blends a fictional love story with the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, provides a great opportunity to showcase the men and women in uniform.

"It's tremendous exposure," said Capt. Kevin Wensing, a spokesman for the secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. "You couldn't buy that kind of exposure — at least we couldn't."

The backdrop for the premiere will be the San Diego-based USS John C. Stennis, which left for Hawai'i Wednesday morning. The Navy granted a Disney request to screen the $137 million film on the carrier deck and then allow the studios to throw a lavish party in the ship's cavernous hangar. There are 2,000 people on the guest list, including the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Thomas Fargo.

Cmdr. Bruce Cole, a spokesman for the fleet, said the Stennis was able to combine previously scheduled training with its trip to and from Hawai'i.

The Stennis has a crew of 2,500 and will not be sailing with any airplanes. On the voyage to Hawai'i, sailors will practice engineering casualty control skills, ship-handling, and firefighting among other things. After it arrives, the crew gets a liberty call in Hawai'i. When it sails back to the Mainland the crew will be tested on what it practiced, Cole said.

"I think most San Diego ships that go out probably do not come to Hawai'i, but being nuclear-powered, that doesn't cost anything in fuel," Cole said. "Usually ships will go off the coast of San Diego and carve doughnuts in the ocean and operate there for training. So on their way here, they will do some basic training."

Cole said the carrier was chosen because its training schedule matched the "Pearl Harbor" premeire.

Party costs Disney $5 million

The party is reportedly costing Disney $5 million. Wensing said the studios paid for all preparations, which include a giant movie screen and bleachers on the deck, and that no Stennis sailors were involved.

"It has cost the Navy virtually nothing," Wensing said. "Part of the agreement was sailors would not have to pick up trash, and we won't have sailors serving drinks or sandwiches."

Cole said the screen and bleachers, partially constructed by Disney at the Stennis' San Diego port, had to withstand hurricane-force winds. In addition, the studios were required to take out a $20 million insurance policy against any damage done to the vessel. And while some Disney people are sailing with the Stennis, they are paying for their own food.

Military bands, including an Air Force band flown in from Alaska by Disney, will perform before and after the premiere. Before the screening, four Hawai'i Air National Guard F-15 fighter jets will fly a missing man salute over the Stennis, a tribute to those who died at Pearl Harbor.

"It doesn't cost anything above and beyond the normal training dollars," said Maj. Chuck Anthony, spokesman for the Hawai'i National Guard. "They'll do their normal training flight that day and do the flyover as they come in."

Anthony said the Navy asked the National Guard to participate.

"This particular event has the backing of the Department of Defense as a venue to tell the story about who the military is and what we do," Anthony said.

The office of the secretary of defense approved the use of military equipment last fall.

Finding ways to link an estimated 500 visiting entertainment journalists with stories that are lifetimes removed from a Navy caught off guard in 1941 will fall on the shoulders of 40 visiting Navy Reserve public affairs officers.

Capt. Woody Berzins, a New Yorker, said the reservists will use the two weeks in Hawai'i to satisfy an annual training requirement they would probably have fulfilled elsewhere, if not for the premiere.

"We're trying to talk about the Navy story," he said. "The event this movie tries to portray increases the public's interest in what the Navy does. It's now a spotlight for the media."

Stennis set for training

Using Navy vessels and crews to gain public support and send a positive message came under intense scrutiny earlier this year because civilian guests were aboard a fast-attack submarine when it collided with a Japanese vessel, killing nine people.

A trio of Navy admirals investigating the collision, which occurred off O'ahu, were critical of the decision to play host to the guests on a voyage where scheduled training had been canceled. Vice Adm. John Nathman, who led the court, said during the proceedings that taking visitors on board for no other purpose than a tour is a direct contradiction to both the secretary of the Navy and operational guidelines. Nathman is commander of the fleet's air forces, which includes the Stennis.

Cole said the use of the Stennis does not easily compare to the often-criticized use of the USS Greeneville, the submarine involved in the fatal collision.

"The Stennis is not getting under way merely to be the site for the premiere," Cole said. "It was going to be under way anyway. We can do our training and accommodate the visit. In that regard, there is a huge difference. And there aren't additional costs we won't get back from Disney."

Cole likened the use of the Stennis to annual carrier visits in San Diego by football teams and their families during the Holiday Bowl, when the Navy plays host to nearly 1,000 guests before the bowl game.

Mike Gordon can be reached by phone at 525-8012, or by e-mail at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com