‘Tar Heel’ day north of the border

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 23, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – How much of the Tar Heel state was evident in this Virginia city on Saturday? Well, even the sky was Carolina blue.

Following military tradition handed down through the centuries, a bottle of American sparkling wine was broke across the bow of the U.S. Navy’s newest submarine as the North Carolina (SSN 777) was christened.

Linda Anne Rich Bowman, wife of retired Navy Admiral and former director of naval nuclear propulsion Frank L. “Skip” Bowman, performed the christening honor.

Among the 1,000-plus spectators was Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn. She was a special guest, serving as one of only two North Carolina mayors to receive an invitation to the event.

“They had us (the town of Ahoskie) listed in the official program,” Blackburn said. “That was in reference to the number of our residents plus those who live in other areas of Hertford County who work at the shipyard.”

According to Hertford County Commissioner John Pierce of Winton, who has worked at Northrop Grumman Newport News for nearly 40 years, there are roughly 250 men and women from the county who work at the shipyard.

“I’m thinking as many as 75 Hertford County residents worked on the North Carolina at one stage or the other,” Pierce said. “We’re proud to represent Hertford County at the shipyard and some stand even prouder to say they personally had a hand in on the construction of the North Carolina. We are also very proud of the honor bestowed upon Mayor Blackburn. It was a good feeling to see one of our own involved in this special occasion.”

For Blackburn, she said it was the thrill of a lifetime. She was seated four rows from the front, directly in front of the massive 7,800 ton vessel that measures 377 feet in length.

“It was an awesome sight looking at that ship,” Blackburn said. “What a beautiful day and a beautiful, well orchestrated ceremony. I’ll never, ever get over the feeling I took from this event. I feel very blessed to have been invited and have the opportunity to represent my community and my county.”

Blackburn added she was also impressed with the amount of work (over 7 million man hours) involved in building the sub. She was also astonished to learn of the number of hours worth of training the North Carolina’s crew received.

“I wish God speed to the ship and her crew,” Blackburn said. “I hope she will never find herself in battle, rather patrolling the seas in order to protect the security of our great nation.”

It was in May of 2004 when the sub’s keel was laid that Mrs. Bowman was formally announced as the sub’s sponsor, thus following another Navy tradition.

“Three years ago at the keel laying for this ship, I said that the team of shipyard workers of Newport News and Electric Boat were the real keel and foundation,” Mrs. Bowman said. “They still are and always will be because of their dedication and perseverance.”

Mrs. Bowman also saluted the veterans of the Navy battleship North Carolina, a World War II era vessel now permanently moored in Wilmington and used as a floating museum.

Addressing that group of former USS North Carolina sailors in attendance on Saturday, Bowman said, “All of you who have served our country have paved the way for this submarine. We salute you with our deepest respect and gratitude.”

Navy Vice Admiral John Donnelly, Commander of Allied Submarine Command, was the event’s featured speaker.

“This ship will assure the prosperity and the security of our great nation,” Vice Admiral Donnelly said. “This crew, which includes six North Carolina natives, stands trained and ready to act quickly and act decisively.”

Other speakers included North Carolina Congressman Mike McIntyre, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Allison Stiller (a North Carolina native), Mike Petters, president of Northrop Grumman Newport News, John Casey, president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, and Virginia Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott.

On May 5, Northrop Grumman Newport News will launch North Carolina into the James River. Once in the water, tugboats will move it to the shipyard’s submarine pier where final outfitting and testing will take place.

The North Carolina is the Navy’s fourth Virginia-class submarine. She will carry a crew of 134 under the command of Commander Mark Davis.