By Chris Vaughn 

MARINETTE, Wis. -- When the future USS Fort Worth goes into service in two years, a small remnant of Fort Worth's beginnings will be aboard.

A button from a cavalry dragoon's uniform, found near the site of the original fort in the late 1840s and donated by a former councilman, was sealed in an aluminum container Friday with other Fort Worth-centric items in a tradition-steeped ceremony referred to as a "mast stepping."

Cmdr. Randy Blankenship, one of the ship's future commanders, could appreciate better than many the connection between the eras of the nation's military -- the past cavalrymen on the prairie and the present-day sailors in strategic shipping lanes.

"From Day One, ships take on a life of their own, and part of that reputation and life of a ship can be tied to the care you place in the traditions," Blankenship said. "The historical value and the heart put into the selection of items important to Fort Worth is a great start for this ship."

The mast-stepping, held at the Marinette Marine shipyards about an hour north of Green Bay, was the final piece before today's christening, the first ever for a Navy vessel bearing Fort Worth's name. The ship's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, broke a bottle of bubbly on the bow this morning, and the future USS Fort Worth was launched sideways into the Menominee River in a dramatic splash.

The ship, only the third of a new class of littoral combat ships, now will undergo months of trials and tests in the Great Lakes. The commissioning -- when it actually becomes the USS Fort Worth -- is scheduled for 2012.

Granger has told the Navy, however, that she would like the commissioning held on the Texas coast, probably at Galveston or Corpus Christi.

Even so, about 60 civic and business leaders made the trip to Wisconsin, including Mayor Mike Moncrief, Councilmen Carter Burdette and Danny Scarth, state Rep. Mark Shelton, Chamber of Commerce President Bill Thornton and former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who is credited with pushing the concept when he was Navy secretary.

Granger, who led the effort to have a ship named after Cowtown, got her first glimpse, inside and out, Friday.

"They kept saying to me, 'It's smaller than other ships you've seen,' but it's actually bigger than I thought it would be," she said. "The technology aboard is so amazing."

Littoral combat ships -- the word littoral means coastal -- are the Navy's newest generation of warship, designed to be light and fast, affordable (at least by Pentagon standards) and flexible in its mission sets. Each ship will have two crews -- a blue and a gold -- that will rotate on and off.

The littoral combat ships in service are the USS Freedom, designed and manufactured by a Lockheed Martin-led team, and the USS Independence, designed and manufactured by a General Dynamics-led team. Lockheed designed the USS Fort Worth.

The ship's 40-man crew can move "modules" on and off quickly, depending on the requirements of the Navy -- conducting anti-submarine patrols, clearing a minefield, stopping drugs or landing special-operations troops. And because of its size, the ship can go into coastal areas as shallow as 20 feet, where larger war vessels cannot maneuver.

The Navy originally intended a winner-take-all competition between the vastly different designs but is now asking Congress for the authority to buy 10 ships from each company because the bids came in lower than the service expected. Congress, though, has only about two weeks left to decide before the bids expire.

Under clear skies and below-freezing weather in the shadow of the ship Friday, the container with the symbols of Fort Worth was welded shut and prepared to be welded at the base of the mast in the coming days.

Inside are two coins from Army units -- the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, to which Maj. Ripley Arnold and his men belonged when they founded Fort Worth, and the 2nd Infantry Division, the modern name for the division commanded by Gen. William Worth in the war with Mexico. Arnold named the city after his former commanding officer.

As a nod to the future of Fort Worth, Granger placed a small piece from the F-35 Lightning II jet inside.

Three of the items were personally significant for Granger -- her congressional pin, a small key to the city and a commemorative pin from the All-America City Award from 1993 when she was mayor.

But of most interest, particularly to those who treasure Fort Worth's history, was the button from the dragoon's uniform, one of the few artifacts remaining from that period and donated by Fort Worth lawyer Jim Lane.

When Lane found out that Granger -- whom he served with on the City Council in the mid-1990s -- was looking for items, he instantly thought of the button, one of several he owns as part of a collection related to early Fort Worth.

The button was found by a "treasure hunter" near the site of the original fort on the banks of the Trinity River, he said.

"I thought, 'What would be more meaningful to the ship than a button that came from the original unit in Fort Worth?'" he said.

Lane then asked Eddie Sandoval, an Apache sun dancer who lives in Fort Worth, if he would be interested in "blessing" the button. Sandoval did more -- he made an arrowhead and blessed both. The arrowhead now sits next to the button inside the container.

Mast-stepping dates as far back as the ancient Romans and Greeks and may well be the "longest-lived of the ancient maritime traditions," said Cmdr. Matt Kawas, one of the ship's future executive officers.

In ancient times, sailors placed coins at the bottom of the mast to ensure their passage across the River Styx should they die at sea. Today, it is continued, albeit differently, but the superstition remains the same.

"Of course it works," Blankenship said. "This is the fourth ship I've done this with, and nothing bad has happened to any of them."

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