Dorchester Day invitation helped Navy captain realize 'a dream'

The USS Porter (DDG-78), a US Navy destroyer, is shown decked out in celebratory colors at the Black Falcon Terminal in South Boston on Monday, June 2. Photo by Bill Forry

It's 6 a.m. on a Friday morning and the opening chords of The Standells' Boston anthem - typically heard blaring from behind the Fenway scoreboards - sound a bit tinny. Not too surprising, given my location: a cozy bed perched deep in the bowels of a Navy destroyer, just a few feet from the water line.

"Down by the river… Down by the banks of the river Charles!!"

My bunkmate, a salty Texan named Jim Marshall - nicknamed "Sicko" (a play on his Navy title, CICO) - has been working the overnight shift and grumbles in his characteristically polite way. Like most of the crew on the USS Porter - 'cept, of course, the closeted Yankees fans - "Dirty Water" means nothing to ol' Jim.

But for me - and for Commander Bob Hall, the man who gave the order to crank up the victory tune for Reveille - it's the perfect way to announce the Porter's entry into Boston Harbor. We're almost home.

An hour later, from the bridge, Commander Hall - impeccable in his dress whites - peers off the starboard bridge deck towards the water tower atop the neck of Winthrop. His dad, who took a stroke two years ago and lives in a home near the beach that leads to Deer Island, is no doubt watching his son's homecoming.

"Wave to my dad!" he tells us.

For Hall, who grew up in Billerica and went to Mass Maritime before entering the Navy, the emotion of this day is about more than just his dad. As the rainbow gas tank comes into sight and the Boston skyline looms larger, these are his last minutes in command of the Porter underweigh. After 18 months in charge, he'll turn over his command in a ceremony filled with naval pomp and circumstance on Monday morning. Clearly, he's not looking forward to it.

The sting of the turnover - a rotation mandated by the Navy, not any reflection on his performance - is soothed mightily by the weekend to come. Hall's brothers, who run a Boston accounting firm, have a big reception planned in his honor at Anthony's Pier Four. His wife and two kids - along with his parents and old Navy buddies - are flying in. And, then there's the parade on Sunday.

If he has to turn over the wheel to the next guy, this is where Bob Hall wants it all to end.

"Where are those flags," Hall wants to know. "Let's get those up there."

A couple of seamen scramble to a closet off the bridge and get busy hoisting four banners up the lines. Nothing nautical about these colors.

Red Sox. Patriots. Bruins. And, of course, the team of the hour, the Boston Celtics. With the Boston Fire boat leading the way - spraying long plumes of harbor-water skyward - Bob Hall and the Porter are ready to slowly back into the Black Falcon pier and drop anchor.

If not for Dorchester Day - and its chief organizer Ed Crowley - this moment would not have come to pass. Crowley, the Fields Corner man who along with his wife Karen, has run the parade for the last dozen years, writes a letter every winter inviting the US Navy to send a ship up the coast from Norfolk, VA. The admiral in charge of the largest naval base in the world then posts the request and Ed and his fellow Dot Day Parade committee folks hope for a taker. They've never been disappointed.

The Navy loves coming to Boston - and, by extension, to Dorchester. Sure, we may be a leftie commune to some among the Navy brass, but we're also home to Faneuil Hall, the North End and Irish pubs by the bushel. And - unlike Norfolk, where sailors and their massive warships are a dime a dozen - we love to see the men and women in uniform walking through the door. The novelty alone is worth a round or two on the house.

So, there was really no question about whether a big, expensive ship would be steering into the Black Falcon terminal this morning. The only real drama was whether it would be Commander Hall on the bridge. That, it turned out, took some doing.

The USS Porter (DDG-78) is a state-of-the-art guided missile destroyer, one of eight such ships attached to Squadron Two at Norfolk. It's as long as five football fields, taller than the towers of St. Gregory's and home to more than 300 sailors and officers. Some of its high-tech cargo is classified, but its arsenal includes anti-submarine bombs, torpedoes and guided Tomahawk missiles, the kind that rained down on Baghdad in March 2003. The Porter was in on that action, but none of the men and women aboard her today were on the deployment.

Instead, in their most recent overseas voyage, the Porter spent most of its six months away from home patrolling other dangerous waters. Last October, the crew saw action against a band of Somalian pirates who commandeered a Japanese merchant ship, Golden Mori, in international waters off the horn of Africa.

Back in his state room, Commander Hall clicked through a PowerPoint presentation of the tense standoff, which lasted about one month. The Porter blew up two pirate skiffs used in the raid on the Japanese ship. Then, taking care to avoid further exchange of fire with the heavily armed hostage-takers, the Porter positioned itself between the pirated ship and the Somali coast. Eventually, the hostages were freed and the pirates dislodged.

Later, on the same deployment, Hall led the Porter into the port of Mombasa, Kenya on a goodwill mission that marked the first "liberty" visit by a US vessel there since the attack on the USS Cole, another Norfolk-based destroyer. The Porter crew got a chance to go on a safari and stay at a resort off ship, but security was tight: The potential for of another sneak attack in the unfamiliar harbor kept the Porter's guns at the ready throughout the week.

The threat of hostile attack from pirates or terrorists is not the only worry for Bob Hall and his officers. On the ride up to Boston, another kind of mammal presents a constant hazard. The young officers in the pilot house and their subordinates on the side-decks peer constantly at the horizon for a sign of the tell-tale spouts of a whale. A collision with a creature would barely make a dent in the 9,000 ton warship, but any such mishap would likely mean the abrupt end to a captain's Navy career. The other big concern is navigating the narrow channels of harbors like Norfolk and Boston, where running up on a rock or sandbar would likewise mean an ignominious end for the officer in charge. It happens.

On his last evening at sea, however, whales and channels aren't weighing too heavily on Bob Hall's mind. As he wraps up dinner in the Ward Room - where the Porter's officers break bread three times a day - he's anxious to show his guests, including his successor, Commander Mike Feyedelem, what's under the hood of this billion dollar warship.

"After this, let's go up to the bridge and show you what she can do," Hall announces.

After issuing a warning to his crew to batten down the hatches, the commander climbs two decks up to the pilot house and - surveying the open ocean ahead, some 40 miles off of Nantucket - decides to burn some gas. At full power, the Porter can make about 35 knots - or roughly 40 miles per hour. Even with only two engines running, as she is now, Hall can make some big waves. The lone crew member standing watch on the ship's aft asks permission to seek higher ground. A seaman standing next to us on the bridge deck offers to stow my Red Sox cap inside.

Good idea.

"All ahead front," says Hall, and the ship takes flight, churning up a massive wake that is soon visible a half-mile off in the distance. "Right full rudder," he says. The ship cuts a series of sharp turns for about 15 minutes as Hall savors a few quiet minutes from his captain's chair.

Commander Feyedelem, who has seen his share of maneuvers over a 20 year career in the Navy, is less impressed by the speed of Porter than with the overall quality of the ship he will soon command.

"Each time I've done a turn-over [aboard a ship], I always find a few things I need to change right away. So far, I can't find a thing on the Porter. I think that says a lot about the job Bob Hall and his team have done here," Feyedelem said. "If it ain't broke."

The big weekend in Boston will be a whirlwind and two extensive on-board briefings pour over every detail, from a planned excursion to the USS Constitution and a hoped-for re-enlistment ceremony at the Boston Garden. In a slideshow presentation in the Mess Hall - a cafeteria that seats about 75 crew members - a young briefing officer does his best to summarize the history of Dorchester and its parade in a few minutes. The rest of the ship watches the presentation from their various bunks and office spaces on a closed-circuit TV system.

"Dorchester is Boston's biggest and oldest neighborhood," they are told. "The parade is about two miles, we're told."

Watching intently is the Executive Officer or "XO" Lt. Cdr. T.J. Dixon, an energetic and hard-driving Virginian who is Commander Hall's right hand on the Porter. The whole weekend of activities are his show. And it was Dixon who worked to wrangle the Dorchester Day trip for his boss.

The Porter, Dixon explains, put in for the Dot Day trip months ago, but initially, didn't get the assignment. Another Navy ship was told to make plans for the voyage instead.

Hall - and his family - were devastated.

"Even before I got my orders for the Porter, my brothers and I had been planning for a trip to Boston," Hall told the Reporter. "We'd always said, 'Wouldn't it be something to bring one of the ships up.'"

Dixon, his loyal lieutenant, scrapped and fought for the Boston visit and, eventually, convinced the Navy brass to change plans.

"It took some doing, but we got it done," said Dixon, whom Hall later praised as a man "who should get his own ship. He deserves it."

So it came to pass that Commander Bob Hall got his cruise to Boston - and a chance to host his parents, siblings, and his wife and children - aboard the Porter one last time. Of course, he was also obliged to host 50 or so Dorchester folks for a private "VIP" reception atop the Porter's bridge last Saturday. Hall and his wife - along with 30 crew members - made a night of it at Friday's Dorchester Day Chief Marshal's banquet. And on Sunday, after meeting Governor Patrick, Mayor Menino and most of the neighborhood's political delegation - Hall led about 70 Porter crew members and officers up Dot Ave. under blue skies. Then, he sat with his family at the reviewing stand in front of the Kit Clark Apartments and watched the parade go by. With a big smile, he waved enthusiastically to all of the friends he'd made, most just within the last 48 hours.

His wife, Kasey, beamed too. The next day, minutes after Commander Hall stepped off the Porter after handing over command, she pulled one of the locals aside.

"I just need to let you know: Dorchester was just amazing, the parade, the reception we got," said Mrs. Hall. "It was Bob's dream come true. How many people get to say that?"

MORE PHOTOS FROM THE USS PORTER VISIT

Commander Robert A. Hall, Jr., captain of the USS Porter (DDG-78) pins lieutenant stripes on the shoulder on newly promoted Lt. Megan Gill, a fire control officer aboard the Porter, during a special ceremony held on the deck of the USS Constitution on Saturday, May 31. Photo by Bill Forry Governor Deval Patrick, left, and Commader Robert A. Hall, Jr. chat before the start of the Dorchester Day Parade, Sunday, June 1, 2008. Photo by Bill Forry Boatswainsmate Third Class Petty Officer Chris Athanas, a native of Weymouth, MA, took a break from woprking the rope lines on the deck of the USS Porter (DDG-78) as it left its post in Norfolk, VA set for Boston on Wednesday, May 28, 2008. Photo by Bill Forry Commander Robert A. Hall, Jr. made remarks during a change of command ceremonmy aboard the USS Porter (DDG-78) on Monday, June 2, as the Porter's Command Master Chief Dominic Musso looked on at left. Photo by Bill Forry