Let the fanfare begin.
The USS Anchorage on Wednesday pulled into port in its namesake city, kicking off four days of celebrations culminating with the ship's commissioning on Saturday, an event with an expected 4,000 attendees gathering at the dock near downtown Anchorage.
On Wednesday, a welcome ceremony for the vessel took place, with words from Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, a blessing and prayer for the ship, and a performance by the Ida'ina dance group, made up primarily of Alaska Natives from around Cook Inlet.
George Holly, an Athabascan from the lower Yukon and a member of the group, said that in his mind, the USS Anchorage will always be the USS "qay xuchux," which translates into "big village," the name for Anchorage in the Deg Xinag language. He said that he hopes the USS Anchorage will come to reflect that traditional name.
"My hope for this ship is that it will live up to that 'big village' name, and be a cause of peacemaking in the world," Holly said.
Built for battle
Parts of the 684-foot USS Anchorage certainly aren't peaceful. Mounted at various points around the vessel are .50-caliber machine guns, missile launchers and 30 millimeter guns. On the back of the ship, the flight deck on Wednesday featured an Osprey -- capable of both helicopter-like takeoffs and prop-plane-style cruising to deliver personnel to tricky landing zones -- and a CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopter.
And inside, in the cavernous cargo deck "belly" of the ship, there are 24,000 square feet of space for Humvees, Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) and big, big guns. A hulking Landing Craft Air Cushion -- a hovercraft, to you and I -- sits with one of those AAVs atop it near a huge set of doors that open to the outside world. That deck can partially fill with water, allowing the LCACs to depart from the ship, carrying their assets to shore. The USS Anchorage is intended for amphibious landings of troops and equipment, carrying around 700 troops in addition to its standard crew of about 360 sailors.
It's a tight fit -- the halls of the ship are narrow, the stairs steep, the overheads low. Sailors sleep in bunks with only a couple of feet overhead, and they lift their hinged mattresses to access their personal items below. I overhear them referred to as "coffin racks," an apt description.
On the mess deck, it really is a bit of a mess. At lunchtime, and sailors and marines lined up for chow, filling cafeteria-style trays with fruit, beans and corndogs. A flat-screen TV plays the movie "This is 40"; it's noisy and crowded and even though the labyrinthine corridors of the ship can easily disorient a newcomer, the smell from the galley let's you know when you're close.
A media tour of the ship on its first day in dock only made things more crowded. The most spacious areas are the hangar and the "well deck," that belly of the ship where the vehicles are stored. But there are also medical bays, a dentist, a ship store that brings in $35,000 a month when the ship is underway, and myriad other rooms hidden throughout.
Leticia Dueñas, a hospital corpsman on the USS Anchorage and one of the guides on the tour, says that all of the San Antonio-class vessels feature the same floorplan. The medical area is nearest the hangar, in order to quickly deliver patients in need of treatment.
For simplicity's sake, the floors are colored to let sailors know what deck they're on. Tan floors indicate the main deck. Red indicates engineering, and blue indicates operations.
The Command Control Center -- better known to civilians as the bridge -- is on the blue deck, and in the middle sits the captain's chair. It's actually one of three captain's chairs, the other two sitting port or starboard outside of the bridge, with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted close behind.
But the bridge, vital as it is, isn't where the magic of the USS Anchorage happens. That's down below, on the red engineering deck, in the Central Control Station.
"This is what they call the heart of the ship," Dueñas explains. "Electrical power, water levels, the pressure in the tanks, it's all controlled from here."
Throughout the ship, rats' nests of wires run overhead. Piping traces along the narrow corridors, diving into walls, emerging elsewhere. Waste water, potable water, hot water, cold water. Communications, power. Huge diesel engines. Diesel generators. The ship can carry 1.2 million gallons of fuel, and have 62,000 gallons of fresh water sloshing about.
The logistics of just keeping everything running smoothly are mind-boggling.
A marine down in the well deck tells me that every Monday, they get a list of "Planned Maintenance Scheduling" outlining the maintenance duties that need to be performed that week. They check everything, then they check it again.
It makes sense, with so many moving parts, so many systems that need to be running smoothly in order for the ship to operate.
'Flawless' trip north
Commander Joel Stewart said that the ship performed "flawlessly" on its weeklong journey to Alaska from San Diego. The ship was delivered to the Navy late last year, and built in a Louisiana shipyard. Stewart was actually the second person to take charge of the ship, after its previous commanding officer, Capt. Brian Quin, was recently diagnosed with colon cancer.
The change of command happened just days before the Anchorage was set to depart San Diego. Stewart said Wednesday that the change of command was already in the works, it just took place a little earlier due to Quin's health concerns.
Another snag that came up not long before the Anchorage was set to depart was the issue of sequestration, which saw across-the-board budget cuts around the federal government.
"Sequestration threw everything for a loop," Stewart said, though in the end, the commissioning celebrations didn't fall victim to the cuts. That may also have had something to do with the Municipality of Anchorage and more than 60 other corporate and private sponsors having already chipped in to help throw the lavish commissioning extravaganza.
After a chilly April around Alaska, there was still a little bit of slushy ice in the waters approaching Alaska shores. Fortunately, it didn't present an obstacle to the USS Anchorage, despite the fact that the ship has "no icebreaking capabilities whatsoever," Stewart said.
He said that the crew was thrilled to have arrived in town for the commissioning, and that they were looking forward to the ceremonies and public tours over the next few days. He said that there is no routine for the time being, since the normal day-to-day operations of the ship are mostly nonexistent with the ceremony schedule.
Still, that doesn't mean anyone's letting their guard down. "This is a warship, and we are prepared to defend ourselves," Stewart said.
Barring any national security emergencies, though, there are a number of events involving the USS Anchorage taking place over the next few days. On Thursday and Friday, the public will be able to tour the vessel, provided they catch a shuttle from the parking lots of either the Sears Mall or Northway Mall to get to the security-restricted Port of Anchorage. On Saturday, the official, invite-only commissioning ceremony will begin at 10 a.m.
After that, it's back to San Diego for additional testing and training. The USS Anchorage is the second ship to carry the name of Alaska's largest city -- the first served for 35 years, including through the end of the Vietnam War.
With any luck, and a lot of tender loving care, the most recent USS Anchorage will live up to the service record of its namesake.
The commissioning marks the first event in the two-year Anchorage centennial celebration, which is expected to last until July 2015.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com