On the morning of April 7, I sat at our gate in the Wilmington, North Carolina airport with my fellow band members waiting for our return flight to Providence after completing our musical support of Navy Week Wilmington. In addition to hosting one of the Navy’s 2019 officially designated Navy Weeks, Wilmington simultaneously launched their 42nd Annual Azalea Festival. This unique event is a week long community celebration marked by galas, fairs, a parade and numerous concerts that draw an estimated 200,000 spectators every year. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and began a personal social media post highlighting the wonderful memories we made during our time in this quaint, charming city. I paused and asked aloud, in the general direction of my shipmates; “How do you spell Azalea?” Before I could blink, a young man sitting near us proudly answered with a quintessential southern smile, “A-Z-A-L-E-A,” before nodding satisfactorily at my inquiry. The kindness and interest this stranger extended reflected the same warm embrace each of us experienced here, a place that still exemplifies a way of life known to many simply as “southern hospitality.”
In just six days, Navy Band Northeast supported more than a dozen events across the city, bringing joy and hope to a town still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Florence. Prior to Navy Band Northeast’s Ceremonial Band performance on the USS North Carolina (BB 55), the director of this decommissioned ship remarked, “We moved everything from the museum to the ship before it hit!” Permanently berthed in downtown Wilmington, this storied ship serves as an impressive memorial to all veterans but namely, to the 11,000 North Carolinians who died during World War II.
Meanwhile, across the waterfront, Navy Band Northeast’s Rock Band, “Rhode Island Sound,” was headlining the final evening of the Azalea festival on the festival’s main stage, kicking off a spectacular fireworks show in front of tens of thousands of spectators. In an era where less than 1% of our population answers the call to serve in uniform, Navy Band Northeast musicians not only brought the Navy’s legacy to the city but also shared their personal stories with the citizens and countless visitors of Wilmington. This real and sincere engagement went far beyond the general public’s distant glimpse of a Navy Sailor strolling through a busy downtown intersection.
With just under 500 Navy musicians serving in our 330,000-member active duty force, I couldn’t help but consider that next year’s Azalea festival attendees would truly miss the presence of Navy Band Northeast. Wherever our Sailors are called to perform, we represent the Navy with polish, pageantry and professionalism, instilling pride through patriotic, inspiring and truly rare performances. As I boarded the plane, I already missed Wilmington and her warm hospitality.