ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD --
Author’s note: The following is part one in a three part series entitled “Ship Days.” The series follows three days of life for Marines and Sailors aboard USS Bonhomme Richard. At the near end of a 200-plus day deployment, the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit is anxious for its homecoming, but somehow manages to fill the time with an insane amount of activity.
ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD – The crunchy tune of punk guitar and pulsing boom of drums is probably the least likely thing anyone could ever hear in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe that’s the precise reason members of USS Bonhomme Richard’s “Second Class Association” decided it was necessary to throw a rock concert Nov. 4.
Dubbed “Battle of the Bands,” five groups from within the ranks of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit and BHR Expeditionary Strike Group finally had their chance to showcase the talent spectrum that is usually reserved for berthing space jam sessions.
Held in the ship’s lofty hangar bay, masses gathered and filled the non-skid deck until seats ran out, then jammed the spaces between torn-down CH-46E “Battle Phrog” helicopters. When standing room was scant, Marines donned safety gear, climbed onto the engine nacelles of the aircraft, grabbed hold of the rotors and viewed the show from 15 feet high.
The first group in the diverse line-up was “BadFellas.” The group of Recon platoon Marines jammed a strong bar set beginning with a fast version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Next up was “Estalgic Demisy.” While the Sailors in the group did their best at a few Dave Grohl/Nirvana hits, sound system difficulties plagued the mandatory three-song set from the opening riff of “Nevermind.” Fortunately for the band, the massive hangar bay door was cracked open and sheets of fresh Western Pacific rain poured in on the crowd, providing a much-needed cooling aspect in the nearly 90-degree venue.
“Identity Unknown,” a rag-tag collection of Marines and Sailors with camouflage-painted faces stepped out to a well-warmed up crowd and coasted through three modern rock hits, closing with Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary of Jane” to a standing ovation.
The most diverse group of the night, “Disturbing Layer of Filth,” played next. Crowd response maxed out to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have you ever seen the rain?” The coolest effect was the sheer number of members. Consisting of nine Sailors, including three female backup singers and a tambourine shaker, “Disturbing Layer of Filth” projected a folk festival jam-band vibe, leaving doubtless smiles on the faces of all in attendance.
Last up, and the overall winner of the competition was “Hollow.” To say these guys were good is the understatement of the deployment. “Hollow,” lead by Marine singer/songwriter Joseph Booze, stuck strictly to originals. The simplicity of the act – only two acoustic guitars and a female harmony vocalist – was nothing short of quiet strength. The crowd went nuts.
“Basically,” says BadFellas drummer Tyler Fedelchak, “we shoulda won.” Everyone laughs. The good-natured joking had been going on since the results were read that night, and BadFellas was enjoying a midnight snack on the ship’s mess deck. The band, three Recon Marines and one member of Bravo Battery 1/11, had obviously come from a gig. Their energy was off the charts and between the four musicians pass twelve conversations. Somehow, I managed to get a few questions in:
SH: What made you guys decide to do this?
Brandon Penner answers: “Basically, I’m the best rock and roll guitar player on the MEU.” Everyone bursts out laughing.
SH: How will you remember the Battle of the Bands?
(Ryan Gesler, lead singer): “The arguments during rehearsals man!”
SH: What kind of arguments?
Gesler: “Everything. Guys bringing other people to rehearsal, song selection … Penner breaking guitar strings and having to climb seven floors to get a new one …”
Penner: “Yeah, we had to practice in the ship’s print shop. Have you ever been down there? It’s, like, five stories below the hangar bay and it’s hot as (expletive) down there.”
SH: So who gets the “Most Valuable Player” award for this gig?
(Fedelchak): “Definitely our manager, Jake Haldiman. He was a great manager, always chewing gum and looking at his watch.” (Everyone laughs.)
Haldiman: “I had to make a schedule! These guys would be playing something and Penner would go off for twenty minutes on a guitar solo, and everyone would just start doing their own thing. To see the improvement over the six days these guys rehearsed was the best part though, it was amazing. We had to practice from one to three in the morning, too, so the amount of Red Bull they drank was astronomical.”
Aside from the constant joking and incredibly subtle “modesty” of the group, it’s easy to see that BadFellas, along with four other groups on the mess deck enjoying post-gig congrats, had a very good time.
With WESTPAC ’07 coming to a near end, the days on ship are surely numbered. The memories gained from Battle of the Bands, however, will be carried off deck when the unit lands in Camp Pendleton and are certain to last a lifetime