Pearl Harbor survivor Allen Bodenlos, 91, was among 6,000 guests who came… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — The $1.3-billion ship is billed as the most technologically advanced of any in its class in the U.S. Navy, with stealth capability and a state-of-the-art communications system.
But the commissioning ceremony Saturday that made the San Diego an official ship of the fleet was drawn from rituals more than two centuries old — from the days of John Paul Jones, when the Navy's first commissioned ship was a captured British schooner.
And so with the classic order, "Man our ship and bring her to life," sailors and Marines sprinted aboard the 684-foot amphibious transport dock ship. The American flag was hoisted and the ship's turbocharged diesel engines began to roar.
It was a morning to watch the Navy's institutional DNA being passed down to a young generation of sailors as 6,000 guests came to the Navy Pier in downtown San Diego to watch the commissioning.
It was also a morning to realize anew the link between the city of San Diego and the Navy. Near the new ship was the museum ship Midway; across the bay were the ships and aircraft of Naval Air Station North Island; around the corner were the submarines at Point Loma.
"My mother said home is where you can show up at any hour, in any condition and they take you in," Adm. Mark Ferguson told the crowd. "San Diego has been a great home for the U.S. Navy."
The new ship is the fourth to carry the name San Diego but the first with that name to have the city as its home port.
The armored cruiser San Diego did convoy duty in World War I and was sunk by a German submarine. The anti-aircraft cruiser San Diego earned 18 battle stars during World War II and sailed victoriously into Tokyo Bay. And combat stores ship San Diego served during the Cold War and Vietnam and left service in 1997.
Among the honored guests Saturday were officers and enlisted who served on two previous ships named for San Diego.
Bill Hussey, 96, of Laguna Hills served aboard the San Diego during 13 of its 18 battles, including the shelling of the main island of Japan. "She was fast and she was beautiful," he said. "These new sailors have a legacy to uphold."
The ship's sponsor, who gave the "man our ship" order, was Linda Winter, wife of former Navy Secretary Donald Winter. In June 2010, she broke the traditional bottle of champagne over the hull at the ship's christening.
The new ship has the capability of taking 800 combat Marines "to the beach," either by docking or by deploying high-speed landing craft. The Marines, Maj. Gen. Ronald Bailey told the crowd, will be ready to "kick the door in violently" of any adversary that rebuffs diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict.
Built by Huntington Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula, Miss., the San Diego arrived at its new home on April 6 after stops at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Cartagena, Colombia, and a transit through the Panama Canal. The ship is designed to last up to 40 years.
Crew members who helped during the construction phase and made the trip to San Diego earned the prized appellation of "plank owners," a term dating to when Navy ships were constructed with wooden planks. In those days, a plank owner could reclaim "his" plank when the ship was decommissioned.
Wood has been replaced by metal, but all plank owners of the San Diego will receive special honors whenever they visit the ship, even decades after that sailor may have left active service.
"Being a plank owner is like being a sword maker," said Petty Officer 1st Class Von Coleman, 34, of Oakland. "We made this sword extremely sharp; when we come back, we'll want to make sure the new crew has kept it sharp."