About the Author: Tom Weinz is the dedicated Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09)."Synergy" is a word that is often touted, but seldom realized. PP09's final days in Tonga, however, were memorably synergistic. On July 24, much of the community of Faleloa gathered at the newly refurbished primary school for brief speeches, graceful Tongan dances performed by the school children, and a shared meal. Since most of the people of the area have never been near a helicopter, we flew one of USNS Byrd’s EH-96 Pumas for everyone to enjoy. All the children lined up to climb into the copter, and many pictures were taken of child “pilots.” That evening, Tongan Prime Minister Feleti Sevele hosted a dinner for an eclectic gathering of sixty: Tongan officials, the PP09 leadership, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer translators and PP09 representatives from different sites, specialties and countries. Typically, the evening ended with music by the Pacific Fleet Band, and joyous dancing.
The grand finale, a true Tongan feast, took place on Saturday, July 25. The day opened with Prime Minister Sevele and his party being welcomed to the Byrd for a tour. Since Byrd’s bridge sits nearly ten stories above the surface of the water, the Tongan officials enjoyed a commanding view of the several islands in the vicinity. An official ribbon cutting took place in the afternoon at Hihifo primary school, followed by an array of food such as few of us had ever experienced. Since Tongans from every part of the island (two islands actually, joined by a narrow causeway) came to express their support and appreciation, it seemed an enormous gathering for this small town. I wished we were making a documentary (which was discussed at one point) in order to show this warm farewell in greater perspective.
Currently, we are half way to the French colony of New Caledonia, three and a half days west of Tonga. Noumea, the capital city, offers good airline connections, and 17 PP09 volunteers will change places by leaving the Byrd to fly home, their replacements arriving by air to board the Byrd for the rest of the mission. And all of us intend to enjoy some relaxation and some wonderful French cuisine.