[PHOTO -The nuclear powered US Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington anchors in Manila Bay on Wednesday. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is here for a goodwill visit. RAFFY LERMA]

MANILA, OCTOBER 29, 2012 (HUNTINGTON POST) By JIM GOMEZ 10/25/12 07:45 AM ET EDT - ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike force's visit to Manila is the latest show of American military might partly aimed at countering China's grip in Asia. But it also provides hundreds of Filipino American sailors a chance to briefly soak in the warm embrace of a second home.

U.S. sailor Ryan Regondola, who was born in the southern Philippine city of Davao, said Thursday that the nuclear-powered USS George Washington's five-day visit underscores America's enduring friendship with the Philippines. He's also excited that the mission means a brief reunion with his Filipino dad, as well as Manila street delicacies including balut – boiled duck egg loved by many for its unique taste, but dreaded by others because of the half-formed, feathery embryo that pops out as an eater munches.

"I missed out a lot, so I'm catching up," Regondola told The Associated Press on board the hulking warship anchored at Manila Bay. "It feels great to be back home."

The Philippines has reached out to the United States, a longtime defense treaty ally, for help in modernizing its acutely outdated fleet of warships and planes and in training its troops amid renewed entanglement in long-running territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Manila's desire to bolster its external defense and security cover has dovetailed with America's intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, where it has been trying to foster closer economic and military alliances with countries such as the Philippines partly as a counterweight to China's rising clout.

In a highly symbolic gesture in May last year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, accompanied by senior members of his Cabinet and military chief of staff, was flown to the USS Carl Vinson to welcome the American warship as it traveled in the South China Sea toward the Philippines for a Manila visit.

The 97,000-ton carrier had just journeyed from a historic mission in the North Arabian Sea, where it had received the Navy SEALs team that carried the body of Osama bin Laden, who was killed days earlier in a highly secretive U.S. commando assault in Pakistan.

Since then, there has been an increasing tempo of high-profile port calls and visits by U.S. warships, submarines and aircraft, including the George Washington, which visited in 2010 and steamed back into Manila Bay on Wednesday for small military exercises and civic projects and to let loose thousands of its crew for a few days of liberty in the bustling Philippine capital.

Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim welcomed Capt. Gregory Fenton, the commanding officer of the George Washington, which will host a reception for hundreds of Filipino dignitaries and military officials.

About 800 of the carrier's 5,500-strong force were either born in the Philippines or are of Filipino descent, according to Fenton.

Navy officer Dioscoro Crucillo had longed wanted to visit his sisters in the Philippines, but managed to return only this week after not seeing them for 21 years. He said he wanted his homecoming to show that he hasn't changed, that he's still "a native son, proud of both worlds."

Another Navy man aboard the George Washington, 19-year-old Spencer Rhoades, is the son of a Filipino woman and an American rail engineer.

His parents brought him to the poor central Philippine province of Samar, where his mother is from, when he was 5 years old, and he did not return to the country until this week. Rhoades said he was aware of the geo-political issues surrounding the American presence in Asia but would rather simply enjoy getting back to his roots for now.

"I see a lot of it on the news, in the newspapers, and it's hard not to think about it," Rhoades said. "When I come here, it's just to relax, get off work a little bit and just kick my feet up ... I get to see where my mom is from and see the culture."

From the George Washington, passenger boats ferry hundreds of American sailors in casual clothes to the Mall of Asia, one of Asia's largest shopping centers, where some bars blared loud disco music on a rainy noontime Thursday to attract the visitors. Smiling mall workers handed umbrellas to the large throng of sailors.

Such U.S. military presence in the region has in the past annoyed China, which has warned the United States not to intervene in territorial disputes Beijing says should be dealt with one-on-one by Asian claimants.

Amid the murky situation, Washington has walked a tightrope by providing military support to allies like the Philippines and declaring that it will help ensure freedom of navigation in disputed South China Sea areas, while also saying it does not take sides in the disputes to avoid being drawn into the wrangling.

"We are firmly committed to helping support the nations that are involved in the disputes, but ideally we'd like to see them sort out their disputes via diplomatic channels," Fenton told reporters.

"We're very sensitive to the areas that are under disputes," he said. "We do make a very conscious effort to stay away from those areas."

US Navy feasts on adobo, pansit, lumpia, chopsuey By Tarra Quismundo Philippine Daily Inquirer 6:08 am | Friday, October 26th, 2012 Share on facebook_likeShare 32

[PHOTO -Journalists take photos of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington off Manila Bay in Manila, Philippines, Thursday Oct. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)]

There may be “fewer horses and bayonets” in the US military, as President Barack Obama put it in the third of a series of debates with his challenger in next month’s presidential elections, Gov. Mitt Romney.

But there’s certainly more adobo, lumpia, pansit and pan de sal—at least in the mess hall of the USS George Washington, thanks to the “Filipino Mafia” aboard the US Navy’s Japan-based aircraft carrier on a goodwill visit to the Philippines.

Chief culinary specialist Ferdinand delos Santos, a Manila native who joined the US Navy 21 years ago, said the behemoth’s diverse crew of some 5,500 sailors had taken on Filipino favorites like adobo, pansit, chopsuey and lumpiang shanghai, so much so that the dishes have become regulars on the warship’s menu.

“Now, they’re a mainstay in the Navy menu. A lot of times, we just introduce a [Filipino] dish one time and when they like it, we keep it on the menu… Like pan de sal rolls, we have that now,” said Delos Santos, a sailor recruited at the US naval base in Subic, Zambales province, a year before it closed in 1991.

[PHOTO -U.S. sailors of Filipino descent Marvin Balbuena, left, Ryan Regondola, center, and Spencer Rhoades pose in front of a US Navy FA-18 fighter jet and a giant Philippine flag as they are presented for the media during a tour of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington, off Manila Bay in Manila, Philippines, Thursday Oct. 25, 2012. The U.S. aircraft carrier group cruised through the disputed South China Sea last Saturday in a show of American power in waters that are fast becoming a focal point of Washington's strategic rivalry with Beijing. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)]

800 Filipinos onboard

Delos Santos is one of some 800 sailors of Filipino descent aboard the aircraft carrier.

The nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carrier dropped anchor on Manila Bay on Wednesday for a five-day visit, where sailors will undertake community relations projects with the Philippine Navy and also enjoy a break from life at sea.

The port call, a return trip following visits in 2009 and 2010, is a break from its routine patrolling of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), where the George Washington, its carrier group and embarked air wing conduct “freedom of navigation exercises, training and routine flight operations,” said its commanding officer, Capt. Gregory Fenton.

“We have a long-standing history of partnership with the Philippines dating back to the Spanish-American War, and we are always appreciative of the opportunity to be able to work with one of our regional partners,” Fenton said.

Filipino Mafia

Among other nationalities aboard the ship, the Filipino group, including Philippine-born migrants and sailors with Filipino parents, has become like a tight-knit family that it has become known as the “Filipino Mafia,” Delos Santos said.

“They call us the Filipino Mafia in a joking way… They would say, ‘Oh, the Mafia’s talking again.’ That’s because we Filipinos are tight,” said the officer.

“You know we Filipinos, once you see fellow Filipinos, you greet them even if you don’t know them. It’s the same here. Even if we don’t see each other every day because the ship is so big, we find time to talk even for a minute or so,” Delos Santos said.

Time-out for visits

Like his fellow Filipino sailors aboard the George Washington, Delos Santos took time to visit relatives in Manila during the ship’s stay here.

So would Davao-born Air Officer 2nd Class Ryan Regondola, who is set to meet some Manila-based relatives. The 26-year-old sailor, a mechanic in the air fleet, entered the Navy soon after he joined his Filipino-American mother in the United States five years ago.

“It’s been my dream to be a part of the US Navy. There’s always equal opportunity here and there’s a lot of room to succeed in the Navy,” Regondola said.

The George Washington will host US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who is also in the country on an official visit.


Fenton described Mabus’s visit and the George Washington’s port call within the same week amid a simmering territorial dispute between the Philippines and China as merely coincidental and should not be given any special meaning.

“This deployment here with these particular engagements and these particular port visits are still part of our routine operations. In the sense that we’re pivoting to the Pacific or increasing our presence and operations in the Pacific, George Washington has been here for four years doing this already,” Fenton said in a press briefing.

“We are very sensitive to the areas that are under dispute, if you will. And we do make a very conscious effort to stay away from those areas. I believe that we are firmly committed to helping support the nations that are involved in those disputes. But ideally, we’d like to see them sort out those disputes via diplomatic channels,” Fenton said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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