ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON (AP) — American servicemen aboard the USS Carl Vinson warship, which buried Osama bin Laden's body at sea, basked in their history-making mission Sunday but refused to discuss the attack that killed him, reflecting America's concern over possible retaliation.
U.S. defense officials were taking measures to ensure the security of the operatives involved in the May 2 assault on a walled fortress in Abbottabad, Pakistan, particularly the Navy SEAL team that killed the world's most-wanted terrorist.
The massive aircraft carrier dropped anchor under heavy guard at Manila Bay on Sunday at the start of a four-day routine port and goodwill visit. It's the first break for Carl Vinson's 5,500 sailors, pilots and crew after months of war in Iraq and Afghanistan that was capped by their support to the commando strike that took out bin Laden in Pakistan.
All those aboard the warship have been ordered not to discuss operational details as they came into contact with the public for the first time since the covert strike, officials said.
President Benigno Aquino III, accompanied by senior members of his Cabinet and military chief of staff, were flown to the Carl Vinson Saturday as it traveled in the South China Sea toward the Philippines, a key Asian anti-terrorism ally. Then a group of journalists were invited over the next day.
Discussions about the slain al-Qaida leader was taboo in both visits. American servicemen did not show any overt sign of celebration over their triumph.
Asked how he felt being a part of the history-making mission in Pakistan, Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, who headed the carrier strike force that included the Carl Vinson, refused to be drawn in.
"You know I'm not going to comment on that," Perez told journalists aboard the 97,000-ton carrier, but added that "everyday that you're a sailor in the U.S. Navy, you're a part of history."
Filipino American Navy Corpsman Liberty Raposas said morale was "very high" among her colleagues.
Perez said hundreds of servicemen who trace their roots to the Philippines welcomed Aquino with a lot of hand-shaking, chatter and picture taking.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino and his entourage were given a tour of the warship and an exhibition of fighter jets landing and taking off from the Carl Vinson, including one flown by a Filipino-American pilot.
Aquino, at one point, sat on the cockpit of an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet at a hangar bay as sailors snapped pictures. He talked and posed for souvenir pictures with many beaming Filipino-American sailors.
But the one thing on everybody's mind — bin Laden's burial from the Carl Vinson just 12 days earlier — did not come up. U.S. Navy officials did not touch the sensitive subject and Aquino's group saw it fit not to ask questions, Gazmin said.
"We did not ask for a briefing because it was too sensitive," Gazmin told The Associated Press on Sunday. "It was a friendly visit and we let it stay that way."
Gazmin, a retired general, said he was impressed by the stunning U.S. commando night-time strike that got bin Laden, adding it showed the might of the American military force.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who said it was his first time to set foot on an aircraft carrier, was impressed as war planes landed and were launched by catapults from the tarmac.
"You can feel the inherent power of these fighter jets," del Rosario said.
In impromptu remarks on the ship, Aquino reaffirmed the "historic, defense and cultural ties" between the United States and the Philippines, one of Washington's oldest and closest Asian allies, presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
U.S. special forces have been training and arming Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaida-linked militants in the southern Philippines since 2002.
The Carl Vinson came from the North Arabian Sea, where it had received a U.S. SEAL team, which carried bin Laden's body after killing the long-wanted al-Qaida leader in a raid on his walled compound near a Pakistani military academy.
Pentagon officials have said that on the carrier, bin Laden's body was placed in a "weighted bag," an officer made religious remarks and the remains were put on a flat board and tipped into the sea.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that during a recent meeting with members of the team that attacked bin Laden, they expressed concerns about the security of their families.
American officials agreed shortly after bin Laden was killed not to release any operational details on the commando assault, Gates said, but added "that fell apart — the next day."
"We are looking at what measures can be taken to pump up the security," Gates said.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila said Carl Vinson's service members would take part in sports events, seminars and community assistance projects with their Philippine counterparts.
The visit will contribute about $4.65 million to the local economy from port fees and crew expenditures, the embassy said in a statement.
Philippine police have stepped up security in Manila, where left-wing groups have threatened to stage protests against the U.S. warship's visit.
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