The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy was christened Saturday at Newport News Shipbuilding with a salute to a hero of America’s greatest generation and a look ahead to a new frontier in warship construction.
With the crash of a bottle against its hull, sponsor Caroline Kennedy revisited the role she played as a 9-year-old in 1967, when she launched the first aircraft carrier in her father’s name.
The first JFK served from Vietnam through the post-911 era, and many of those retired sailors were in attendance Saturday. The new JFK, the second ship of the Gerald R. Ford class, is packed with new technology and will patrol the seas for the next 50 years.
As a bottle breaker, Kennedy proved a model of consistency. She took two swings back in 1967 and did so again Saturday. This time, her second try was a home-run wallop that sent sparkling wine spraying in all directions.
Kennedy said her sense of wonder and the daunting responsibility of being a ship’s sponsor hasn’t faded through the years.
“I never imagined that one day I would be standing here again in the same spot with my husband, Ed, and my own children, Rose and Tatiana, just as awestruck by the power of the U.S. Navy and the patriotism of what happens here,” she said.
The christening capped a morning of soaring speeches under sunny skies that paid homage to JFK’s legacy as a naval officer and commander-in-chief. Speakers reminded the crowd that Saturday was the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a day of sacrifice and courage that galvanized America’s fighting spirit.
The christening also marked an important milestone for the Newport News shipyard,a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.
The yard is the sole designer and builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy. The christening took place three months ahead of schedule, reflecting the company’s push for efficiency in the multi-billion-dollar Gerald R. Ford class carrier program.
Jennifer Boykin, Newport News Shipbuilding president, said the Kennedy reflects sweeping changes in construction strategy, in which shipbuilders are using high-tech tools. It will be the last carrier built with paper drawings. The next Ford-class ship, the future USS Enterprise, will use digital plans.
“When President Kennedy asked Americans to be the pioneer in a new frontier, it was not a place, but rather a way of thinking and acting to move our nation forward to the future of new discoveries in science and technology,” she said. “And I am proud that his namesake ship is serving as our proving ground for the new frontier of digital shipbuilding.”
The Navy is expected to take delivery of the ship in 2022.
‘He changed my life’
Charles F. Bolden, former NASA administrator, recalled how President Kennedy challenged the nation nearly 60 years ago with what seemed like an impossible task: landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
“He changed my life, as he did so many others, even if I didn’t know it at the time,” Bolden said.
The same spirit of exploration that pushed advances in space technology lives on in the carrier program.
“There will always be more journeys, more questions and more discoveries,” Bolden said. “This incredible ship before us today is both one of the biggest instruments of deterrence that exists, and it also carries our nation’s pride and hopes for a better world. The USS John F. Kennedy will sail our seas proudly. It will be christened with the name that has left its mark in the hearts of all Americans.”
The connection between space and sea was on the mind of John Kerry, the former secretary of state, one-time senator from Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts and a friend of the family.
“President Kennedy challenged my generation to reach for the future,” Kerry said. “This carrier is a fitting tribute not just to the president who set us on course to the heavens, but who never forgot our connection to the deep blue ocean below, a sailor at home on the open water, and a Navy veteran who once reminded us that we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.”
During World War II, Kennedy commanded PT-109, a small patrol torpedo boat that was rammed by a Japanese ship. The young Kennedy was credited with the saving lives after that collision. Caroline Kennedy later recalled how her father struck up a friendship with the commander of that Japanese vessel.
Sen. Mark R. Warner, who also delivered remarks, told reporters afterwards that Kennedy would ask the U.S. to look ahead to solve challenges in today’s complex world, just as he did in the 1960s.
“President Kennedy was about asking Americans to be aspirational,” Warner said, “asking us not to be afraid of the future, but to welcome that future, calling on us to put a man on the moon within a decade, something that most folks didn’t think was possible.”
Without being specific, Warner said today’s leaders would do well to heed that call, saying that too many political leaders today are “backwards looking. They don’t understand both the challenges and opportunities of 21st century economy that’s going to be increasingly driven by technology.”
Boykin invited Newport News Shipbuilding employees and their families to the ceremony. They showed up in droves to see the fruits of their labor.
Jacob Milne arrived at the shipyard with has father Scott at 7:30 a.m., where they dined on chicken, waffles and sausage that the shipyard provided for guests who waited hours for the ceremony to begin. They were decked out in tan USS John F. Kennedy baseball hats and grabbed a seat in temporary stands that gave them an elevated view of the ceremony.
Milne has worked as a welder on the Kennedy for the past year and a half.
“I think it’s cool seeing everything that we’ve been doing coming together. You put a lot of hard work into it, day in and day out, and it’s just something else to see it completed.”
Emily McGhee, a strategic sourcing analyst, brought her children, ages 5 and 3, to the event decked out in child-size hardhats and stopped by a souvenir tent to get JFK lanyards.
“I just started working here and I wanted to show my kids kind of what we do, what we’re all contributing to. It’s a pretty epic final product,” she said.
As thousands waited on the ceremony to begin, children got their faces painted while others snacked on cotton candy, popcorn and funnel cakes. While waiting in line for concessions, Julia Cain took time to write a letter to service members stationed abroad on a card with a picture of the Kennedy.
The letter writing campaign was part of Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to deployed service members with items like snacks and personal items.
Cain said her husband works at the shipyard and she wanted to make sure she supported him and others who worked hard on the Kennedy, but also the troops who can’t be at home. She said she wrote that she hopes they’ll continue to be men and women of honor and that God will bless their service.
“I have a disabled brother that’s a veteran and those guys are lonely out there and far away from home. They do a good job and are just a blessing to their family and the nation,” she said.
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