This historically Navy town - which it would sink when the fleet abandoned it as a homeport four years ago - is being asked to welcome back four destroyers.
But because of a sea change in public attitude, Newport now believes it has had about all the Navy it can stand. The town does not want House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) to do any more favors by pressuring the Navy to send the whole fleet back to Newport where it could be near Massachusetts shipyard for repair work.
The Navy, after ordering the destroyer fleet of about 35 ships out of NewPort in 1973 to concentrate operations in Norfolk, Va., reversed course last month and announced it is sending four warships back to Newport "to improve the strategic dispersal of the Atlantic Fleet."
The Navy announcement said the first of the four ships, either destroyers or frigates, will arrive this fall. "The Navy anticipants that between 1,000 and 1,200 officers and enlisted men will be moved. Between 40 and 50 percent of thses families are expected to reside in available Navy housing and in nearby communities."
To some Newporters, that Navy ennouncement brought back warm memories of the good old days. But to a seemingly larger number it was bad news.
Most Newporters do not seem willing to return to the era of "Blood Alley," and area of garish bars of loud music and prostitutes; of drunken sailors slugging it out on the pavement, or shore patrol vans wheeling onto the scene, sirens screaming.
Since the last of the fleet sailed out of Newport in 1974, Blood Alley has reformed. It is a prim street of elegant shops and stone walks. A sailor would go thirsty if stranded on his old street today.
Tobacco heiress Doris Duke has helped change the tone of the town by contributing money to restore colonial homes all over Newport. Urban renewal, which started when the fleet sailed away, has made a big difference, too, by transforming the Newport waterfront into attractive shops and fancy restaurants.
Outsiders seem to like this new Newport. The Chamber of Commerce says the number of tourists jumped from 890,000 in 1974 to 3 million in 1977 - thanks in part to the America's Cup yatching classic.
"Look," said one Navy captain, explaining why he can appreciate the fears of Newport's leaders. "They had a reception the other night at the Sherton for the crew of the new frigate Oliver Perry when she came through here. There was lots of booze sailors got drunk. Then there were fights inside and out in the parking lot. Who the hell wants to go through that again?"
newport's Democratic Mayor Humphrey (Harp) Donnelly said he is a big supporter of the Navy, still the biggest employer here because of all its land installations like the Naval War College and research laboratories, but he fears what would happen if the full 35-ship fleet should return.
"They couldn't handle it, and we couldn' handle it," said Donnelly, principally because there is not enough housing available. Anything more than about eight ships, said the mayor, wouls overwhelm the town's housing and its schools.
Not everybody, of course, is against the Navy sailing back to Newport in full force. "I've seen the yatchmen get drunk, too," said Buck Ossick, owner of the Pier Restaurant on the Newport waterfront.
There are plenty of tourists in Newport during the summer, said Ossick, but "It's still a long, cold winter. So everything that can help I think is beneficial."
The real test of how well Mayer Donnelly, will come this summer when there will be no extravaganza to draw people here. Last summer the America's Cup racs were the big draw.
Donnelly said he does not blame O'Neill for pushing the Navy to send ships back to Newport so yards in the speakers' home state of Massachusetts will get the repair work.
"I'd do the same thing if I were in his position," said Donnelly. "He's just trying to get work for his people." But, added the mayor, Newport is markedly different in 1978 from four years ago. It has found something besides the fleet to live on.
Walk into the Chamber of Commerce office off Newport's restored waterfront and policeman Gary Lash will flip through thick notebooks of charts showing how healthy the city has become since the fleet pullout forced divercification.
The fleet pulling out "work up Aquidneck," the island on which Newport and several other communities are located. Lash sais" it woke up to the fact that you can't depend on the Navy."
Charts in the chamber's notebooks include about Newport's economic change, since 1974, when the last of the fleet pulled out, and 1977: Retail sales rose from $55 million to $66 million ;service is nearby Middletown and Portsmouth have attracted non-Navy employers.
Lash points to the result of an admittedly haphazard poll of 164 NewPorters which he believes tyifies public attitudes here. The questions were whether would like the old fleet of 35 ships to return of a lesser number; none at all.
The lowest number, 29 percent, said they wanted just part of the fleet back, and 59 percent said they wanted none to return.
Some officials will openly admit it was not their idea to send the ships to Newport, but O'Neill's. One Navy captain here told this story now making the rounds. "We have some good news and some bad news for you, Mr.Speaker," said an aide.
"The good news is that the Navy is sending those ships back to Newport. The bad news if that there is a repair next to where they will be berthed."
There is indeed a private yard negotiating to locate at the destroyer pier here. The yard's spokesmen have said they would welcome the job of repairing Navy ships. Navy officials say it is too early to tell how the ships coming back to Newport will be maintained or where their crews and families will live.
Said an edtorial in the Newport Daily News: "The Navy's status here for the past four years has been that of an educational and scientific institution - more a campus than a military base. Residents of Aquidneck Island have come to like it that way . . .
"On the other hand, we hate to think Newporters are so unhappy about the return of the ships that they turn a cold shoulder to Navy personnel. On the other hand, we also don't want to see that mess of joint spring up again along the waterfront . . ."