Missile cruiser calls at Baltimore port to kick off Fleet Week festivities

Navy Captain Juan J. Orozco talks about how excited he is to bring his missile cruiser, USS Leyte Gulf, into the port for Fleet Week. (Baltimore Sun video)

The USS Leyte Gulf, a 567-foot, gray-hull guided missile cruiser, sailed up the Chesapeake Bay into Baltimore waters Wednesday, tying up alongside the U.S. Navy's newest stealth destroyer in Locust Point to headline Fleet Week as the flagship for the public maritime event.

The Norfolk, Va.-based Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser and the Zumwalt destroyer, which will be commissioned in a ceremony Saturday, are among more than a dozen U.S. and Canadian vessels in town for a celebration that will draw more than 2,500 sailors and Marines — and thousands more spectators — to the city.


The ships will be open for free tours through Sunday, and the Blue Angels are scheduled to perform their thunderous, breakneck aerobics in the sky on Saturday and Sunday, one of roughly a dozen different air show units flying over the city from Martin State Airport for the celebration.

Rear Adm. Kent Whalen, commander of the Carrier Strike Group 12, landed on the Leyte Gulf's flight deck in a helicopter Wednesday morning and rode the ship into Baltimore's port with the crew and a few local dignitaries.


"The idea behind all this," Whalen said, "is to let the people of Baltimore and the greater surrounding area see their Navy. It's their Navy; the taxpayers pay for it. We'd like them to come and take a look at it, and I think they'll be impressed.

"So walk aboard this warship or any of the others that'll be there, take a look at the airplanes up at Martin State, and you can see the latest and greatest technology and how your ships are run."

The Leyte Gulf's roughly 300 crew members stood at ready, arms folded behind their backs, on the ship's decks as it churned through the water under the Key Bridge and made its way up past Fort McHenry at about 15 knots. A pair of tug boats guided the giant vessel into port with city police and U.S. Coast Guard escorts.

Capt. Juan Orozco, the ship's commanding officer, said he's looking forward to welcoming Baltimoreans aboard the ship and seeing them interact with his crew.

"I'm very proud of them, and I think they've performed exceptionally well," he said. "That performance has been recognized in us being nominated as the Fleet Week flagship. This'll give us a great opportunity to show off the ship and show off my sailors to the folks of Baltimore and Maryland."

The educational aspect of Fleet Week will go both ways, Orozco said: Many of the sailors in town have not previously been to Baltimore and will have a chance to be introduced to the city as residents are greeting their ships.

"They are very excited to be coming to Baltimore and to this great piece of our country that has unique maritime heritage, certainly, with the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

Chief Petty Officer James Kale, who is from Oxon Hill in Prince George's County, said he'd been to New York on a previous Fleet Week and was excited for Baltimore's first.

"It's a pleasure to be back in Maryland," Kale said. "I haven't been here in a couple months, so it's nice to finally come back home."

Ryan Russell, an electronics technician, third class, polished the ship's bell as the crew made final preparations for arrival.

The crew's main focus this week? "COM-REL" — Navy-speak for community relations, he said.

Russell said he had visited Baltimore for the Star-Spangled Spectacular in 2014.


"It was a good experience, seeing the community come together to support the Navy like they did," he said.

Electronics technician Rodney Leonen, Russell's partner, joined the Leyte Gulf just about a month ago. He's excited to disembark in Baltimore this week.

"It's going to be my very first port," he said.


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