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USS Idaho sailors make the jump from a sub to a jet boat on recent visit

USS Idaho (Greg Bishop/Flickr)

Six sailors from the USS Idaho left their nuclear-powered fast attack submarine in Connecticut and boarded a jet boat bound for Hells Canyon this week during a jam-packed trip to the Gem State.

“The captain is at the helm,” could be heard on the twin-engine Bentz boat as Capt. Randall Leslie moved over to take a turn at the controls.

It’s a lot different than operating a 377-feet-long submarine, but he caught on quickly, and the Snake River scenery rolling by was definitely a plus.

“It’s absolutely breathtaking,” Leslie said. “This entire week has been amazing, from visiting with high school kids and veterans to doing this.”

While here, the crew made stops throughout the region, soaking up the hospitality, history and culture of Idaho. The goal of the excursion was to showcase the state and create a bond between the Naval crew and their new vessel’s namesake and residents.

The USS Idaho, which is still under construction, will be commissioned next year and go into active service in 2025. It’s the first Navy vessel to be named after Idaho in more than 100 years.

“I love the name,” Leslie said. “The last time it was used was in 1919 for a battleship. It’s long overdue, but I’m glad they waited so I could be the captain.”

Bruce King, who owns and operates the jet boat, was assisted by Clarkston resident Lenny Frasure on the 128-mile, round-trip tour of the deepest gorge in North America. The six submariners had never been on a jet boat or in Hells Canyon. For most, it was their first trip to Idaho.

Alex Boxmeyer, who grew up in Alabama, also took a turn at the controls, saying it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. His childhood memories of boating on slack water were much different than the whitewater rapids and jagged rocks along the Snake.

He remembers his grandfather talking about the days before the dams were built at home, when it was still possible to float a raft down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. Now it’s smooth and looks more like a lake, Boxmeyer said.

The 26-year-old is a junior officer on the USS Idaho submarine. He said most folks believe his job would be claustrophobic, but “it’s just like being in a big office with fluorescent lights and no sunshine, and not nearly as bad as everyone thinks.”

Before enlisting in the Navy, Boxmeyer worked in the plastics industry, which was an unfulfilling job. “It was a lot of people shoving money in their pockets. I just needed something with a little more meaning.”

The only Idaho native in the contingent was Robert Boscan, a 21-year-old Hayden resident. Wearing a bucket hat, Boscan took in the captivating beauty of the canyon without saying much. He’s easily the least talkative man on the crew, the other sailors said, but that doesn’t mean he’s unfriendly.

Working as a sonar technician on the sub is a perfect fit for his demeanor. “I chose a submarine because I thought it would be quieter,” Boscan said with a smile.

Forrest Bridges, a 23-year-old Georgia native, works as a logistics specialist, procuring parts and equipment for the crew. “In other words, I’m the supply guy, or Amazon, for the USS Idaho,” Bridges said.

His original plan was to become an air traffic controller, but that changed as soon as the military discovered he was color blind. He’s happy with how things turned out. “I knew submarines had an elite team of people, and I wanted to be part of that,” Bridges said.

The beauty of Hells Canyon, the rolling hills of the Palouse and the scenery in the Idaho Panhandle were stunning to Bridges. He and the rest of the crew put on a lot of miles over the week, but the tight schedule was worth every minute, he said.

“This is the furthest west I’ve ever been,” Bridges said. “It’s really cool to see another part of the world — not just the country — the world.”

Much to the sailors’ delight, the river trip offered plenty of quick turns and “slappy” waves. King, a longtime skipper and Coast Guard veteran, deftly threaded the “Eye of the Needle” near the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers. Meridian resident Don Curry, a retired chief petty officer sitting in the back of the boat, was soaked by a wave but remained smiling on the rainy morning.

As the jet boat made its way south, Daniel Lannigan, a 21-year-old from North Carolina, said he was thrilled to be back in the Pacific Northwest. His dad was born and raised in Spokane, and his parents met while attending the University of Idaho.

“I’m Idaho adjacent,” Lannigan said. “It’s gorgeous. I miss seeing this landscape and the people. I immediately called my grandpa and dad when I found out I was serving on the USS Idaho.”

Lannigan is a nuclear-certified machinist on the submarine. When submerged, the vessel will be underwater for 60 to 90 consecutive days with no Wi-Fi or cell service, but he doesn’t mind.

“I love all of the people I work with,” Lannigan said. “I know I can depend on any one of them. It takes a special person to serve on a submarine.”

He is among 143 sailors who are currently conducting testing of intricate equipment and “making sure everything works” prior to active service at sea. The crew is authorized to say the sub can go faster than 25 knots and deeper than 800 feet, but those are about the only details of the attack vessel that can be shared.

“The rest is classified,” Lannigan said.

What they can say is the USS Idaho is a cutting-edge, high-stealth warship capable of intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, surveillance, land attacks, mine detection and sea control.

The sixth sailor in the group was Phillip Alvey, of South Dakota. He is a key crew member who runs the turbines, and is also known as the “power and light” guy, said retired Capt. Henry Netzer, of Hayden, who helped coordinate the visit. Netzer was a submarine officer during the Cold War.

Frasure, who has spent his lifetime on the river, informed the honorary Idahoans of the canyon’s rich history as it passed by the borders of three states — Washington, Idaho and Oregon. He and King made sure the Navy crew saw five rivers in one day — the Snake, Salmon, Imnaha, Grande Ronde and Clearwater.

The tour took a little less than six hours, beginning with a daybreak departure from Hells Gate Marina in Lewiston. Dug Bar was the turn-around point on the southern end of the journey.

As the jet boat idled, Frasure explained how a band of Nez Perce Indians led by Chief Joseph crossed the river at Dug Bar on May 31, 1877, while complying with the U.S. government’s demand to leave their homeland in the Wallowa Valley.

The USS Idaho crew was next headed to the White Bird Battlefield, south of Grangeville, and Frasure gave them a preview of what to expect there.

On June 17, 1877, U.S. troops moved into the White Bird Canyon to strike the Nez Perce, who were sheltering in one of their winter villages. The soldiers encountered a peace party of six warriors carrying a white flag.

A civilian scout shot twice at the Native Americans and the battle began. The U.S. calvary was defeated with heavy losses, and Chief Joseph and his band headed to Montana before eventually surrendering near the Canadian border.

Much of the region’s history is linked to Hells Canyon, such as the sinking of the “Imnaha,” a paddle boat in 1903. On a November day, the 124-feet sternwheeler was carrying supplies to miners in the now-extinct village of Eureka when it sank in the Mountain Sheep rapids, about 2 1/2 miles below the mouth of the Imnaha River. Luckily, no passengers died, and the only casualty was a horse, Frasure said.

Under a cloudy sky, he and King pointed out several popular rock formations, such as a potato playing a piano, a dinosaur taking a drink, whale rock near Asotin, and the profile of Chief Joseph below Cook Creek on the Idaho side.

Ancient petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy and a stop at Cache Creek Ranch, now owned by the U.S. Forest Service, were among the other highlights. The sailors visited a museum there and posed for a photo near an American flag overlooking the canyon.

The veterans on board, including Paul Agidius, of Moscow, and Joe Deacon, of Coeur d’Alene, shared memories of their time in the military. For example, Alan Griffitts, of Coeur d’Alene, served as a career engineer with the Navy’s “quieting” laboratories and is the former director of the Bayview Research Base in Idaho. They are all active volunteers with the Commissioning Foundation.

Netzer said all quieting improvements made on U.S. Navy submarines over the last 60 years were tested or improved at Bayview. The USS Idaho crew members visited the northern Idaho facility during their tour of the state.

Frasure, who served overseas on a weapons crew with the Air Force, recalled returning to Clarkston in 1968 after being deployed in Japan and Korea for 21 months. His first stop was the Wild Goose Tavern on Clarkston Beach.

“I walked straight through the bar and out the back,” Frasure said. “Then I knelt down and dunked my head in the Snake River, and thought, ‘I’m home.’ I can remember that like it was yesterday.”

As the jet boat returned to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, King motioned for Leslie to take over. Every crew member started snapping pictures when the boss slid into the driver’s seat.

Leslie is the man in charge of the entire USS Idaho, which is an enormous job, Lannigan said. When the captain’s at the helm, it’s a big deal.

“He’s usually too busy doing other stuff and overseeing all of our operations. This is really fun to see.”

Leslie said he chose a career in Naval submarines for three primary reasons. After studying to be a mechanical engineer in college, he likes the technical aspects of a nuclear-powered vessel. Secondly, the missions are known as a “silent service” to the country, and they offer opportunities to travel all over the world.

The final and perhaps most important reason is the submarine team.

“They are all smart and hard-working,” the commander said. “The people you meet out on submarines are pretty cool.”


(c) 2023 the Lewiston Tribune

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