By Chris Vaughn
MARINETTE, Wis. -- Twenty-seven years in the Navy, and even Capt. T.D. Smyers had never seen anything like it.
Just seconds after the resounding thunk of a champagne bottle hitting the bow of the USS Fort Worth, a strike delivered left-handed and low by U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the ship slid down its elevated pier-side moorings and hit the water for the first time, listing heavily to starboard before righting, just as designed.
"That was extremely cool," said Smyers, commander of Naval Air Station Fort Worth and an aviator unaccustomed to the traditions of the ship side of the Navy. "To have all these people of Fort Worth come to frigid Wisconsin brings both the Navy and the city closer together at a crucial time in both of their histories. This has brought them together in a way never done before."
After 161 years of Fort Worth history and 235 years of the Navy, Saturday's christening at the Marinette Marine shipyards marked the first time a military vessel will bear the city's name.
"I have learned just how much pride there is in our city that we have come to be a part of the United States Navy fleet," said Mayor Mike Moncrief, who attended with about 60 civic and business leaders. "This ship will not only sail with the city's name, it will sail with our prayers for all those who serve our country and their families."
The littoral combat ship, 113 feet keel to mast and 389 feet long, is only the third of its kind and represents what Navy Rear Adm. David Lewis described as a "seminal shift" in building combat ships.
For 400 years, navies have built ships around weapons, he said, but the "littoral combat ship changes all that." Such ships were designed for speed, agility and flexibility, allowing crews to change weapons and mission packages within a day.
Because they can operate in water 20 feet deep, the ships also provide the Navy an option in coastal areas that it doesn't have with its larger blue-water vessels. The ship was launched into the Menominee River.
Built in Marinette by a Lockheed Martin-led contracting team at a reported cost of $480 million, the ship technically won't become the USS Fort Worth until it is commissioned in 2012. But it was already referred to as "Fort Worth" by Saturday's speakers, a blend of naval officials and representatives of Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan and the defense contractors.
Fort Worth resident and former Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who pushed for the ships as Navy secretary after 9-11, said the ship represents close to 10 years of work for him. "For me personally, this is the culmination of a long journey."
After the first two littoral combat ships, the USS Freedom and USS Independence, were under construction, the Navy canceled future contracts because of spiraling costs and delays. Granger wasn't sure that Fort Worth would get a namesake ship.
But Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley said that the Lockheed team and another led by General Dynamics, which is building a differently designed littoral, brought down costs and that the program was revived. The Navy, pleased with how the first two ships performed in testing, wants Congress to give it permission, by mid-December, to buy 10 ships from each company.
"We are working this every day on the Hill," Stackley said. Saturday's event took place on a breezy morning under gray skies with temperatures in the 20s. After hundreds of guests, including many workers who built the ship, heard more than an hour of speeches inside an assembly building, the activity shifted outside for Granger, the ship's sponsor, to do the honors.
"I christen thee 'Fort Worth,' and may God bless all the men and women who sail in her," she said before swinging the bottle.
Granger said Fort Worth is particularly proud of the ship because of its long relationship with the military, dating to Maj. Ripley Arnold's arrival with the 2nd Dragoons in the late 1840s.
"We deserve this honor because of our deep-rooted connection to our nation's armed forces in every chapter of our history," she said.
The future USS Fort Worth, as numerous naval officers noted, is nothing if not fast. It is powered by two diesel engines and two gas turbines that produce in excess of 100,000 horsepower that give it the ability to go from a standstill to 40 knots in a bit over a minute.
It doesn't have a propeller. Instead, it uses water jets that enable it to maneuver faster, said Joe North, director of the littoral program for Lockheed.
"It's easily the fastest surface combatant ship in the Navy today," North said. "This ship will keep up with a go-fast boat, and with its size, people won't know what to do about it."
Because the Navy wanted a crew of only 40, compared with a destroyer's crew of about 250, many jobs on the ship are automated. For instance, the engine rooms are unmanned, and the bridge can operate with only three people.
A small crew also means that sailors have a bit more privacy. The largest stateroom, for the most junior sailors, holds eight people.
Senior Chief Richard Henson, the ranking enlisted sailor on the "blue crew" and a 23-year Navy veteran, said the sailors selected for the ship are excited about the opportunities and responsibilities of being in a small crew.
"We're going to have sailors who are the sole experts in their field in several areas. ... Every sailor is vitally important."