America's newest warship, the USS Anchorage, was commissioned during a persistent spring snow Saturday morning at the Port of Anchorage. Several thousand people stood or sat in the slush on the dock facing the $1.3 billion ship, a vessel longer than two football fields and capable of carrying up to 800 Marines to combat zones or natural disasters.
Red, white and blue bunting hung from its smooth sides. A line of nautical flags stretched from bow to stern and across the top of the two giant cone-shaped communications towers and flapped in a light breeze. Otherwise the ship loomed gray, still and silent.
The USS Anchorage was christened on May 14, 2011, and is still undergoing sea trials. In naval terminology, the commissioning ceremony "brings a ship to life," placing it in active service. Saturday's event was the first time a Navy ship was commissioned in Alaska. The invitation-only crowd included a large number of former Navy servicemen and women, veterans of other branches of the military and families of crew members.
Air Force musicians wore earmuffs as they played patriotic tunes. The rotors of the Osprey vertical-takeoff aircraft and Sea Knight helicopter parked on the rear deck turned white in the snow. The crew, lined up in dress uniforms at parade rest -- their hands behind their backs -- stood stoically as freezing water dripped off noses. Several were shivering in the conditions productive of hypothermia. At least one had to be walked to a warmer location.
Several dignitaries, including the mayor, the governor and the state's congressional delegation, mentioned the weather and the hardiness of those present in addresses to the assembly that lasted about an hour.
Finally the American flag was raised over the ship. Capt. Joel Stewart read his briefly worded orders.
"The USS Anchorage is now in commission and I am in command," he declared.
Lt. Gary Ross, whose parents live in Anchorage, received a symbolic "long glass" (telescope) and went aboard to set the first watch. Annette Conway, the ship's sponsor -- traditionally the spouse or female relative of an officer (her husband is a retired general) who brings good luck to a vessel -- gave the order, "Officers and crew, man our ship and bring it to life!"
"Aye, aye, ma'am!" shouted the crew. Sailors jogged from the dock up the gangplank to the strains of "Anchors Aweigh." They were followed by the Marines, armed in battle gear somewhat lighter than the 60 pounds they might carry into combat.
Anything that could move on the ship was set in motion. Guns were raised, radar spun, black smoke boiled out of two stacks. Sailors and Marines lined the rails and saluted the people of the ship's namesake city.
The name was selected by the secretary of the Navy, said Bruce Knowles, the ship's program manager for Huntington Ingalls Industries, the contractor that built it.
"The bigger ships tend to get named after ports," he said. "If they're named after an inland city, it's usually one of the bigger population centers."
The name also follows a Navy custom of recycling names of particularly valiant warships. The much-decorated first USS Anchorage was also a transport. It saw duty from Vietnam to the second Gulf War. It was decommissioned in October 2003 and its stripped-down shell was sunk for target practice in 2010. Its ship's bell remains with the new USS Anchorage.
The new ship's bell clanged as Capt. Stewart came aboard the vessel, now considered in active service by virtue of the ceremony. Some visitors, including veterans, lined up for a tour. Others lined up to catch buses back to town.
Just before the speeches concluded, Cmdr. Brian Quin, the previous captain of the ship, addressed the crowd.
"Until about two weeks ago, I was fully expecting to read my own orders here today," he said.
Quin was diagnosed with cancer in April and has undergone surgery. As a result, the process for advancing Stewart to the top position on the USS Anchorage, a change of command that was already in the works, was sped up.
Nonetheless, Quin made the decision to return for the commissioning and stand in the snow with the crew he'd selected for his ship.
"I couldn't not be here," he said.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM