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‘Tested and battle ready’ USS Montana returns to Navy fleet after 101-year absence

The future Virginia-class attack submarine Montana (SSN 794) conducts initial sea trials Feb. 1, 2022 in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of HII by Ashley Cowan)

The USS Montana was commissioned Saturday during a ceremony at a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, making it the first Navy ship named after the Treasure State in more than 100 years.

“Today the USS Montana is tested and battle ready,” Chris Jessel, executive officer of the submarine, said as more than 100 Montanans sat in the audience at Naval Station Norfolk.

The $2.6 billion Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarine will add the next generation of stealth, surveillance and special warfare capabilities to the Navy fleet, officials said.

Gov. Greg Gianforte spoke as he stood near a banner for the submarine that read: “Vigilantes of the deep,” a nickname adopted by the crew in an homage to the state’s period of vigilante justice in the 1800s.

“Now more than ever, American strength on the world stage is needed,” he said. “Today, the world’s most powerful, advanced and capable Navy adds to its fleet one of the most sophisticated submarines ever built.”

Gianforte said missions conducted on the USS Montana SSN 794 will make the nation and world more secure. He hoped the submarine’s crew members would draw strength from the state’s value of resilience, talking about recent flooding that ravaged communities.

“I am proud, honored and humbled you will carry that resilience to all corners of the world in the service of our nation,” he said, adding he knew the submarine would live up to its name.

The 70-minute ceremony was held dockside with the submarine serving as a backdrop. It was christened Sept. 12, 2020, by former secretary of the interior Sally Jewell. She attended Saturday’s ceremony which included a performance by a Native American drum group from Montana. Also, a C-130 from the Montana Air National Guard in Great Falls flew overhead toward the end of the ceremony.

Gianforte said several of Montana’s tribal nations were represented at the ceremony.

“Tribal communities in Montana have a long and decorated history of military service,” he said.

Jewell noted Mariah Gladstone, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe is serving as maid of honor. She said Gladstone gave a blessing and smudged the vessel using bird sage to bless the boat.

“With awe, I have witnessed the USS Montana emerge as an extraordinary element of our national defense,” she said, praising all those who worked on the submarine and their families.

“I am confident the USS Montana will play a key role in furthering freedom around the world and also confident she will live up to the spirit of adventure and resilience of her namesake state,” Jewell said.

Admiral Frank Caldwell said the Montana would patrol the frontiers of the world’s oceans.

“This is a great day for Montana and a great day for our submarine force,” he said.

Bill Whitsitt, chair and director of the USS Montana Committee, a nonprofit which has raised nearly $200,000 over five years for the submarine, said Saturday the commissioning was the “peak” the group has been looking forward to.

“It was a powerful, emotional and joyful time to see the ship come to life and see the sailors a number of us have gotten to know … it was truly amazing,” he said.

He said the committee changed its bylaws several days ago to say its mission does not end with the commissioning and plans to be the support group for the submarine for its entire 30-year life.

Some speakers compared the vastness of the ocean to Montana’s skies.

“The Montana big sky spirit will carry our vigilantes of the deep through many challenges and the missions ahead, even when its crew cannot see the sky,” Erik Raven, under secretary of the Navy, said.

Raven officially placed the ship into commission.

“May God bless and guide this warship and all who sail in her,” he said.

Jon Quimby, commander of the USS Montana, said the submarine has undergone sea trials and the crew has put in more than 6,000 nautical miles already.

“I am proud to serve with you and for you and I know we are ready to take on any challenges thrown our way,” he told the crew.

The 7,800-ton Virginia-class submarine was built by Newport News Shipbuilding — Huntington Ingalls Industries and General Dynamics Electric Boat.

Jennifer Boykin, president of Newport News Shipbuilding, said Saturday the USS Montana commissioning was particularly special as much of its construction took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said even in the most trying of times, Montanans kept in touch virtually on the submarine’s progress.

“We felt the spirit of the whole state of Montana all the way,” she said, adding the commissioning was a testament to the dedication by the shipbuilding and Navy team.

Virginia-class submarines, which are nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines, will replace the Navy’s Los Angeles-class submarines as they are retired. The submarines incorporate dozens of new technologies that increase firepower, maneuverability and stealth and enhance their warfighting capabilities. They have 12 Tomahawk missile tubes and four torpedo tubes, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the 21st Virginia-class submarine to be delivered to the Navy.

The submarine has a Montana theme throughout. Passageways are named for Montana rivers, such as the Missouri, Flathead, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison and Yellowstone. The lowest part of the boat, which has one hallway, is called Bitterroot.

Berthing areas, where sailors sleep, are named for Montana places and towns such as Helena and Kalispell.

The crew mess area includes a Glacier Park panorama requested by Quimby.

And the crew dining area is called the Big Sky Saloon. Currently, two of the 135 crew members are from Montana, but that number fluctuates.

Other Montana touches include a genuine peace pipe to be presented by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes elder and made by a Blackfeet artist.

For the past five years members of the crew have visited Montana and attended rodeos in Bigfork and parades in Kalispell. And committee members have taken the ship’s bell around the state. It’s a replica of the bell aboard the first USS Montana and honors the state motto of oro y plata (gold and silver). Melted into it are Montana gold and silver as well as gold and silver dolphin pins worn by submariners.

The first and only commissioned USS Montana was an armored cruiser added to the U.S. Navy fleet in 1908. Known as armored cruiser No. 13, it was decommissioned in 1921. It was renamed the Missoula and served in the reserve fleet until 1930.

The USS Montana will remain in the shipyard for a few months, where it will have its software updated. It will then be moved to the Pacific fleet and be based in Hawaii.

Saturday’s ceremony included a closing prayer to the Creator by Gene Sorrell, an elder with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“The USS Montana, I pray you become one with the water, work together for protection of our homelands,” he said.


(c) 2022 the Independent Record

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